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Holiday Tips for Children with Autism

Preparation is Key: Holiday Tips to Ensure an Enjoyable Season

The holiday season can be a time of joy, happiness, love, and excitement, but it can also cause anxiety and stress, especially if you have a child with autism. Thinking about all of the possible changes to their routine when Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s roll around could make you panic.

But it’s important to remember – the holiday season changes everyone’s routine, whether you have autism or not! Our work, home, school, and day-to-day schedules change, decorations appear in homes, streets, and stores, and visitors you rarely see may show up on your doorstep. 

It can be stressful for everyone. 

The key to successfully navigating the holiday season with your child with autism is to prepare. Not only do you have to prepare them, but you have to prepare yourself and your family and friends. 

Holiday Tip #1: Prepare Your Child 

You might wonder, “When should I start preparing my son or daughter for all the changes that come along with the holidays?”  

You know your son or daughter best. You know their level of need and how difficult new holiday routines, foods, decorations, and schedule changes will be for them. 

If your son or daughter struggles in this area, it’s a good idea to talk about the upcoming changes as soon as you see the first signs of the holiday season. (You know what we mean – typically, November 1st brings an onslaught of holiday decor and commercials.)

Of course, preparing your son or daughter depends on your holiday plans, whether you are traveling, having guests over, or attending holiday parties. 

To ensure an enjoyable holiday season, try some of these preparation strategies:

  • Countdown to the big day: To help reduce the anxiety about an upcoming holiday, you can use a calendar, paper chain, or any other countdown technique. Time can be an abstract concept to many children, whether they have autism or not. By having your child physically countdown to Thanksgiving, Christmas, or whatever big event is coming up, you create a structured understanding of time for them.
  • Use social stories and pictures: Describe what’s going to happen on the given holiday to your son or daughter with ASD. Tell them how things are going to look different and what they can expect. It’s also important to solidify that they will still need to follow the rules they typically follow daily.

You can put these expectations into picture form by either finding pictures on the internet, drawing some, or even using your own photos. Assemble them on a poster and hang it where your child can refer to it before the big day. Then on that holiday, they can carry it with them. 

  • Roleplay: Mock possible social scenarios that might occur. You can practice taking turns opening gifts, waiting for others to open theirs, and giving out presents. 

Talk about what your child can do if an unappealing situation occurs. For example, 

“Johnny, what if your cousin Samantha gets in your personal space, and it makes you anxious? What should you do?”

Then you can discuss possible solutions. Now is an excellent time to reinforce social communication skills and rules they’ve learned through therapy.

  • Get them involved: Have your son or daughter participate in the decorating. If you know lots of decorations overwhelm them, have them help you decorate slowly – perhaps a little bit each day leading up to the holiday. Ask them where they think decorations should go and if they like how the decor looks.

If you are unsure about what your child can handle in terms of decorations, take a trip to your nearest store. Walk your son or daughter down the Christmas aisles and ask them what they like and what they don’t like. Watch how they react to certain things so you can get a better sense of how to decorate at home. 

Holiday Tip #2: Prepare Your Friends and Family

If you’re getting together with friends and family for the holidays, make sure you have a chat with them before the day arrives. Discuss strategies they can use to help minimize any behavioral disturbances and anxiety in your child. Let them know ways they can try to get increased participation from your son or daughter. 

Let your loved ones know what to expect from your child and why they might not want to participate to the extent other children do. Explain that they may need to break away from the family if they get overwhelmed. Make sure they understand they shouldn’t take this personally. 

It’s also important to talk to your loved ones about holiday mealtime. This can be some of the most disruptive to your child’s routine. Your son or daughter may be eating in a different home or see their dinner table set up differently. They may be eating with a different plate and utensils and be offered foods they don’t typically eat. If your son or daughter is a picky eater, help your loved ones understand that they shouldn’t expect them to eat the traditional holiday meal. 

If this is the case, it’s a good idea to bring food from home and familiar tableware if it means fewer disruptions at mealtime. This is perfectly normal for children on the spectrum! But just be sure to make your loved ones aware before you bring out the nuggets and your child’s favorite plate. 

Holiday Tip #3: Prepare Yourself

Prepare yourself for the fact that, despite all your preparations, things may not go as planned.

And that’s okay.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your child. The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and celebration, not stress and anxiety. While there is always some amount of stress involved, there’s no need to make it worse!

You’ll also have to mentally prepare yourself to stick to your guns and stay firm. You may receive unwanted parenting advice from well-meaning relatives, but don’t take it to heart. Likely, they don’t understand what it’s like navigating the holidays with a child on the spectrum. 

Holiday Tip #4: Set Rules

Setting rules for your child with autism is always essential, but perhaps even more so during the holidays. Possible rules to consider include:

  • Not playing with the ornaments on the tree
  • What is okay and not okay to talk about at holiday get-togethers
  • Saying hi to grandma (or certain family members)
  • Holding your hand in crowded places (such as airports)
  • Saying thank you for gifts
  • Asking them to come to you for support if a situation is overwhelming

Holiday Tip #5: Stay Aware of Your Child’s Behavior Cues

Again, you know your child better than anyone else. You understand what they can and can’t handle. Make sure you keep an eye out for signs they may be getting increasingly anxious. 

Before things escalate, it’s a good idea to set aside a designated space in your home or the home you are visiting where they can go to take a break from the holiday action. (Make sure you clear this with your host if you aren’t at home.)

If you know your son or daughter is sensitive to noise, bring along a pair of noise-canceling headphones and pack their favorite toys to play with while in their safe space.

kids and snowmanHoliday Tip #6: Above All Else, Enjoy Yourself!

Don’t avoid spending time with family and friends out of fear of how your child with autism may behave. The best thing you can do for your child during the holidays is to prepare them, your loved ones, and yourself. 

Do the best you can, and don’t forget to have fun!

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