Written by: Ashley Flanders, RBT
The holiday season is a time to welcome a break from our day-to-day lives, to get together with families, enjoy gift exchanges, decorate with bright lights, break out those annoying Christmas songs, and partake in rich food…all ways of celebrating that we have come to eagerly await. However, for individuals with autism, especially children, this comes with new expectations and a disruption in routines. The holiday traditions we hold dear may be a source of stress, frustration, or sensory overload for individuals with autism. Provided below is a list of general tips that may help your child feel more comfortable and get through the holidays unscathed (which the holidays are also known for!)
Care to Prepare
Knowing what to look forward for the season and/or on a certain day can help avoid stressors for you and your child, and how much preparation you engage in will depend on your child’s needs. Keep in mind what events have been a source of anxiety for them in the past and what could have helped in that situation. You could find or create a social story to read with your child that discusses what is going to happen during the holidays and what behavior is expected from all parties. You can also review a calendar with them a few days or weeks ahead of time, so they have a physical countdown of when these events are going to happen. Make it exciting and really emphasize the fun parts!
Practice for Success
Whatever your traditions are, roleplaying or using social scripts ahead of time may help the holidays run smoother. Whether opening presents, meeting Santa, or performing religious rituals, practicing can avoid catching your child unprepared and help them have a good time!
Getting to Know You
If you plan on visiting family or friends that your child has not spent a lot of time with, you may want to start easing your child into meeting them ahead of time. You can create a picture book with notes about each person to give to your child. On the other side, speaking to visitors about your child’s potential triggers, what they enjoy, and how they communicate can help visitors get to know your child better. For all parties, it may be helpful to discuss consent before touching others, to let your child know it’s okay to say “no” if they feel uncomfortable with new people and avoid embarrassing visitors if your child does not want to engage with them at first.
Have a back-up plan for when you go out on the town, visit loved one’s homes, or are traveling. Carry a bag full of their favorite toys/activities or soothing items. Make sure you bring food that your child will eat. Before heading out, locate a safe area you and your child can go to take a break. Let people that are with you aware that you may take these breaks, and ensure them that it is so everyone can have a positive experience.
Ease your child into the season by taking gradual steps for events that may be overwhelming to them. For instance, when you begin decorating (and also taking down decorations) put only a few up every day until you build up to a perfectly merry home!
If your child has a history of being hypersensitive to certain stimuli, prepare for this as well by avoiding areas/events that may be agitating to them—for instance, holiday light shows or caroling. You can also use your “baby steps” to get them used to these experiences for the season or bring along appropriate sensory adaptive aids such as noise-reducing earphones or sunglasses.
This is for you and your kiddo! Encourage your child to communicate their needs through the holiday. Don’t feel afraid to voice to others what kind of supports and your child may require to get through the holidays.
Be safe, have fun, and happy holidays from ABA Connect!