Navigating the holiday season can sometimes feel more stressful than peaceful. Families are busy shopping, going to holiday events, and visiting friends and family members between normal daily obligations like work and school. Throw in other holiday traditions like visiting Santa, holiday train rides, and seeing Christmas lights, and the season is packed with potential triggers for children with autism. Not to mention, the hustle and bustle of the season can throw off a child’s everyday schedule, which many children with autism find comforting.
As a parent of a child with autism, you can make special memories while still helping your child feel secure with these tangible tips and methods.
- Maintain your child’s schedule as much as possible. If nothing else, aim to keep bedtimes and mealtimes consistent so that when a holiday break is over, getting back into the normal routine is not as daunting. If you need to adjust your child’s schedule to accommodate holiday events, let your child know ahead of time, and explain how their routines will be impacted. Consider creating a visual schedule that you and your child can review and look at together throughout the day.
- Familiarize your child with relatives before a visit. Many people see family and friends only once a year, which can feel very uncomfortable to a child. If possible, re-introduce your child to the individuals they will see at an upcoming event either through a photo album you talk through together, or a video call. Give your child time and space to process meeting and seeing new individuals during events, and set expectations ahead of time with relatives on your child’s progress. Let them know your child’s comfort level with hugs, high-fives, or other greetings before you arrive at a gathering.
- Seek out sensory-friendly holiday experiences. Shopping in a crowded mall, among bright lights and holiday music, could be a strong trigger for a child with autism. Look for Sensitive Santa or sensory-friendly events in your city so that your child can experience the holiday magic without the sensory overload.
- If you are attending a holiday gathering, call the party host ahead of time. Some children with autism are likely to wander and can be sensory seekers or sensory defensive, which all require parents to understand their child’s environment to keep them safe. Ask the host ahead of time if their yard is fenced in, or where there is a safe space for your child to play or rest. Knowing any potential safety hazards ahead of time can help put your mind at ease and allow you to plan ahead accordingly.
- Ensure your child’s favorite foods are within reach. Many children have food aversions, sensitivities, or a very limited palate. Ensure that your party host has options that your child would like, or bring your own food if the holiday gathering falls during a mealtime and find a quiet space for your child to eat. Better yet, plan for your family to eat before you go to avoid a challenge altogether.
- Prepare to advocate for your child. During the holiday season, you may encounter friends or family members at events that you haven’t seen in quite some time and who may not be familiar with your child or autism spectrum disorder. If they ask probing questions, or try to offer advice on how to handle a situation, be prepared to voice that you know what is best for your child and your family.
- Create a calm place, or “nest” at your home for your child to use doing particularly draining holiday moments. After a long day with a new type of schedule, your child may find comfort in a space that they can unwind on their own.
- Create new traditions that are safe and enjoyable for the entire family, like holiday movies at home, or neighborhood walks to see lights. If you carve out a few traditions that you know everyone in your family is comfortable with ahead of time, you can go into the event stress-free.
- Prepare for holiday travel (if needed) by using social stories or pictures. One aspect of travel that can be daunting for children with autism is that there can be unexpected elements to the process. What you can do ahead of time is explain that delays are possible, and bring along your child’s comfort toys or books to use during those moments of unease.
- Carve out some time for yourself. As parents and caregivers, if you are able to destress throughout the holiday season, you can be present and less reactive when normal holiday stresses do arise. It’s certainly easier said than done, so don’t discount the power of even shorter slivers of solo recharge time that you are able to find, such as 15 or 20 minutes in the mornings.
- Practice opening presents, as this sensory experience could bring out a host of emotions or reactions from your child. By practicing before Christmas morning or a gathering with grandparents, your child will feel more prepared for the experience and potentially find more enjoyment in the act of opening presents.
- Be mindful when decorating your home, and involve your child in the process. Too many competing lights and sounds could be overwhelming for your child. Asking your child for input along the way can ensure that your home is an environment that is calming and comfortable.
- Talk to your child about new holiday experiences they may be interested in trying together as a family, and don’t discount trying something first. Most communities have sensory friendly holiday activities, but as your child gets older, they may also express interest in experiencing other types of events they may not have tried before. Drive-through light events, holiday crafts, and gingerbread house decorating are examples of holiday traditions to discuss together and consider giving a try if you haven’t before.
- Set aside quiet time to connect. No matter how many obligations there are on your calendar, set aside time on a daily basis to connect with your child and ask about how they are feeling. Read books, watch movies and take part in your child’s favorite calming activities. Take their cues and be prepared to decline events if it all becomes too overwhelming for your child. Sometimes saying no is exactly what your child needs to feel comfortable and supported.
- Stay flexible throughout the season. This year you may find that your child finds some holiday traditions to be exciting, and it’s positive for families to celebrate those new experiences along the way. But other gatherings could be upsetting and cause tantrums or other reactions. As parents, it’s important to stay flexible and supportive throughout the range of experiences you have this holiday season. Be prepared to leave events early if needed, but also soak in the moments that go smoothly, as well.
Families with children of all abilities can find the holiday season to be filled with joy, stress, and surprises. Our home at Acorn Health is that your family can spend time together and create traditions and experiences that are right for your family. We are here to support you and your child along the way!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How can I help my autistic child for Christmas?
You can slowly introduce Christmas activities into your child's schedule for the holidays. Instead of doing multiple Christmas events on the same day, slow things down and spread them out if your child is having a hard time. You can decorate the house in sections, or over several days if necessary.
How can I take my child traveling for Christmas?
Traveling with an autistic child over the holidays can be challenging without the right preparation. The key is to contact attractions, hotels, and other venues in advance to ensure that the necessary accommodations are in place.
If you’d like more information about how ABA therapy could help your child and your family navigate life’s events, call Acorn Health at 844-244-1818 to schedule a free consultation.