Holidays are a whirlwind of fun and excitement. Family gatherings, events, and trips make the holidays special, but can also be a source of stress for children with autism. Schedule changes, noisy decorations, and crowded events or family gatherings can overwhelm an autistic child. Certain precautions in anticipation of these situations can reduce stress and sensory overload during the holiday season.
Before the Holidays Arrive
As the holidays approach, remember to focus on sleep and nutrition first. Try to keep your child’s sleep schedule as close to normal throughout the holiday break to keep them well rested and maintain routine. Avoid major changes in diet despite the variety of sweets available everywhere you will go.
Talk to your child about the holidays and the changes in routine that might occur. Explaining what the family will be doing and when can decrease anxiety and help everyone focus on coping strategies when needed.
If your child is in school, prepare for the break by introducing appropriately scheduled activities to keep them focused. Adding some structure to their off days can set expectations during their holiday break.
Strategies to Use During the Holidays
Decorating the house can be a challenge with autistic children. Instead of bringing all the decorations out at once, plan for a more gradual integration into your home. Let your child check them out and put them in place when possible. Decorations involving flashing lights or music may bother some children. Allow them to interact with them at a store or another place first to give them an opportunity to adapt.
Shopping gets hectic this time of year. Give your child enough time to gradually adapt to crowds and other sources of stress. Be prepared for coping issues that might arise and be patient with your child.
Prepare your child beforehand if you put gifts under a tree. Piles of gifts in your home could be confusing for a child with autism. Talk to your child about how and when it is acceptable to open gifts, and advise them to wait for an adult before opening the gifts. Try to wait longer before putting out all the gifts to minimize unnecessary temptation.
If you plan on travelling somewhere by airplane, provide the airline with advance information. Inform them that you are traveling with an autistic child, and email any information on challenges or needs your child might have while traveling. This is especially important if a service animal is involved.
It is very easy to get caught up in a busy schedule during the holidays, but you may want to decline some invitations to keep the routine from getting too crazy for your child to handle. Read your child’s cues and respect their needs in different situations. Bring comforting toys and allow them to take a break whenever needed.
Family events also have a potential to become too overwhelming for autistic children. Prepare siblings, cousins, or other children to share gifts or be understanding. When needed, have a quiet space available for your child to retreat to in order for them to relax and play with their own toys.
Get your whole family involved to discuss how to handle and minimize disruptions and encourage positive behavior. Use behavior support strategies, such as social stories, to help your child cope with changes in routine. A visual schedule can be helpful to illustrate when there will be events and gifts, and to help prepare for more busy days.
Changing your expectations for the holiday season can improve the outcome. Instead of having the same expectations as other families, enjoy the moments that make your child and family happy. The holiday season can be full of wonder for your autistic child, which will make it a memorable one for you, too.
By Jennifer Scott