This article was contributed by Wanda Curley, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Triad and mom to a son with autism.
The holidays are anticipated by many, yet when the temperatures cool and bells start jingling, we will all be likely to hear people around us talking about the added stress and strain they can bring to families as well. This can be doubly true for families with a loved one on the spectrum, who must then deal with the added stress of additional changes and transitions, crowds, disrupted or broken routines, and overwhelming noise and lights.
The main key to avoid frustration and help your loved one on the spectrum enjoy (or at least survive) the season is found in one word: PREPARATION! So, how do we prepare?
Know and assess
One of the first things we as parents must do is simply to know our child well and to assess the amount of holiday cheer that he or she can truly tolerate. Can your child tolerate the additional crowds at the local mall from late November through December? If not, then consider avoiding those days and make a plan to let them shop earlier in the year or at times during the season when stores are less crowded. Can your child handle seeing big changes in your home such as the sudden addition of the lights, Christmas tree, etc.? If not, then consider scaling back your decorations or adding them very gradually over a few weeks. This can also be a good way to involve your child in the process and allow him to take ownership of some customs and activities that he can enjoy. The more control that your loved one has over the extra activity of the season, the more tolerant and accepting of the changes they are apt to be. Make sure you give ample choices of holiday activities, including some calming, non-holiday options that are familiar and typical for them in their daily routines.
Have a holiday season calendar prepared for your loved one in addition to their typical visual support systems. Mark the dates of the various holiday events, such as special concerts or dinner with extended family. Create a social story for the various events so that your child will know what to expect way ahead of time. You may even want to prepare a photo album with pictures of family and other guests who may be visiting your home, or of whom you may be traveling to visit during the holidays. Schedule looking at the photo album as a leisure activity on your child’s schedule, and that way your child will feel more familiar with people they don’t see as often during the year. Role playing and scripting of typical family situations during the holidays may go a long way toward relieving the added anxiety your loved one may feel during the season.
Provide an escape
Have a calming space set aside for your child that he or she can access whenever the hustle and bustle of the holidays gets to be too much. Teach your child self-management by using a break card or developing some type of cue for them to show when they are anxious and need some space to themselves. If you’re visiting in someone else’s home, this may be just a quiet room away from everyone where the lights can be turned down, soft music played, etc.
Duplicate favorite items
If you are traveling for the holidays, make sure that you have plenty of your child’s “favorites” on hand, including snacks, books, toys, sensory items, etc. You can also help by letting extended family or friends know about some of these items so they have them available as well. Many times, our family members and friends feel just as helpless as we do in difficult situations, so they will be happy that you have not only educated them on your child’s needs but also allowed them to be part of the solution. If you must travel by plane, use social stories and visual supports to make sure your child is prepared for any delays, as well as what will actually occur during the boarding and flying process.
Be flexible and “let go” when needed
Many of us have happy memories of past holidays and thus make expectations for the season that can be hard to meet provided the difficulties our loved ones may endure during this busy time. Perhaps you have always traveled instead of staying at home, or had a custom of exchanging and opening all gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Don’t be afraid to “change things up” if you need to do so to make it easier on your child and your entire family. Perhaps you need to start a custom of opening just one gift per day to help prevent your loved one from being overwhelmed. In our family’s case, our son with autism has never truly enjoyed the unwrapping of gifts, so we started a custom of making him a nice big gift bag with all of his gifts together. He can pull them all at the same time, or he can take his time and pull out one at a time without having to unwrap anything. He much prefers this process, and we have seen him become much less anxious now as a result of this one change we made for him.
Does your child not enjoy the concerts or other crowded events of the season? Opt for unconventional or quieter activities that can be enjoyed by just your family. One of our newest traditions is to enjoy a light show together by car. Just a handful of us are in the car, and we can adjust the sound as well as bring along some of our favorite holiday treats to share. Don’t feel guilty about having to let go of some time-honored traditions or customs. Make new ones that are more comfortable for your family, and don’t stress about those things that are difficult to access now. Our children on the spectrum can often sense our anxiety and frustration, which may then lead to their own, so it’s important to find time to take a breath and “de-stress” ourselves as well.
The holidays truly are a wonderful time of year, so don’t hesitate to begin new traditions and customs as needed. Think “outside the box” and finally … try to RELAX AND ENJOY!
Wanda Curley can be reached at 336-333-0197, ext. 1412, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To Learn More
The ASNC Bookstore has some recommended resources for you:
Boy and a Bear: The Children’s Relaxation Book by Lori Lite
Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears? Dealing With Sensory Overload by Jennifer Veenendall
Picture This: Places You Go/Things You Do, a CD Rom with pictures of modes of travel to add to visual schedules
Books to help friends and relatives understand autism:
Can I Tell You about Autism? by Jude Welton
Grandparent’s Guide to ASD by Nancy MucklowASNC, autism, autism acceptance, autism holiday stress, autism holidays, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Developmental disability