As much as we love the holiday season, let’s be honest: it can stress us out. Imagine, then, what the holidays can be like for our children with autism and sensory processing disorders. The lights, the sounds, the unfamiliar foods, the hugging of family members, the travel – it can be a lot to handle.
Preparation and patience will go a long way in helping you make the most of your holidays, even if that means exposure to some unfamiliar stimuli and disrupted routines for your child. At ABLE United, we have put together seven tips to help your family enjoy the holiday season:
1) Decorate slowly and sensibly. You might find it helpful to put the Christmas tree up one day and decorate it the next, for example. Build in time for your child to touch and handle decorations, and consider whether flashing lights and musical decorations belong in your decor.
2) Safeguard the most important routines. Disruptions are simply inevitable during the holiday season, so consider which routines are indispensable to your child. Maybe it’s breakfast and the usual bedtime; maybe it’s eating out of a favorite bowl that you need to remember to pack if you travel. It’s important to stick to those.
3) Prepare for what’s new. Some children with autism benefit greatly from visual supports, such as a calendar to help count down an upcoming event or photos of family members they haven’t seen in a while. Social stories may be of use — for example, a story that explains how family members who haven’t seen them in a while may want to hug and talk.
4) Remind your child how to open gifts. Consider all the unwritten rules about gift giving. Presents are not to be opened until an adult says it’s time. Children are to open only presents that have their name written on it; meanwhile, other children nearby will be opening gifts of their own. These presents might then be shared. Consider your child and how this might be best handled. And remind your child to say “thank you.”
5) Factor in new faces. Just as it helps to tell your child what to expect from others, talk to your friends and family about what they can expect from your child, and encourage them to lovingly prepare their own children. If you are taking your child to see Santa, discuss in advance what will be involved: waiting in line, telling Santa about a wish list, sitting in his lap (or standing at his side) for a picture, and smiling. Consider hosting holiday get-togethers at your home, where your child is most comfortable.
6) Don’t shop at the last minute. This isn’t fun for anyone, but especially not your child with autism. So be like Santa: make your list and check it twice, but not on Christmas Eve!
7) Give special consideration to traveling. It’s the ultimate disruptor of routines; on the other hand, it has the benefit of stretching your child’s flexibility! Pack wisely, choosing favorite toys, clothes and perhaps even foods. You might want to let your child pack and unpack his luggage to grow accustomed to the idea. If your child is prone to wandering, invest in an ID bracelet or tracking device, especially if you’re going to a large family gathering where your child could get lost in the hubbub. If you’re traveling by airplane, Autism Speaks put together this helpful resource.
Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone, so trust your instincts about when your child has had enough or when your child has more fun in store. Success is going to lie in finding your own family’s balance between enjoying holiday traditions and keeping life closer to normal, so give yourself the grace to say no when you know that enough is enough. And remember that no matter how hard you try, there will possibly be missteps. So forgive yourself and your child when they occur, and get back to enjoying a simpler holiday season!