The holiday season can be chaotic for any family, but for families living with and caring for children on the autism spectrum, it’s a new level of super-charged chaos. Here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years, both from my own experience and from other parents.
1. Communicate Expectations
Use picture schedules or social stories to help your child know what to expect, and respect your child’s desire to opt out of the things that seem too overwhelming. Also, remind your child what kind of behavior is appropriate where you’re going. Telling your child to “be good” is vague and likely won’t mean anything. An instruction to say “thank you” when receiving a gift is concrete and therefore much more likely to sink in.
2. Limit Lights
Your child has sensory issues. Keep this in mind when decorating and going out. Visual overstimulation can lead to anxiety and even, in some children, seizure activity. Blinking lights are rarely a good idea. Even candles can be a source of frustration. Don’t be surprised when a child who has been taught to blow out candles on a birthday cake blows out the menorah, as well.
3. Think Outside the (Gift) Box
Many kids have a hard time opening presents because they don’t like the sound of paper being torn. Others have made paper-tearing a hobby. Use gift bags or cloth material to enclose gifts for those who are sensitive.
4. Prepare for ‘People Panic’
Having people over for a holiday gathering? Let your child in on as much information as possible, such as who will be coming and how long they’ll likely stay. Also, give your child permission to retreat to his or her room or another designated area in order to decompress, if necessary, and keep that area off-limits to everyone else.
5. Be Wary of Transition Troubles
Doing some traveling? Be realistic about how much transitioning your child can do effectively during the course of a day. Going to new places and meeting new people can be extremely taxing on kids on the spectrum. Identify a place—even the bathroom works—where your child can go to decompress, if needed. Bring a pair of headphones or earmuffs for your child so they can block out the hustle and bustle.
6. Sniff Out Problematic Smells
Be aware of the over-abundance of scented products this time of year. If your child is sensitive to smells, a pine-scented candle or peppermint hand soap may just be enough to push them over the edge of meltdown mountain.
7. Give Up Some Control
Give your child as many choices as you can. A sensitive child who has choices may feel more in control and may in turn be more willing to go with the flow.
8. Quit While You’re Ahead
Don’t wait until your child is sensory-overloaded to leave the party. Decide how long you think your child can last and then decrease it by an hour. Better to leave while your child is in a good place and call it a successful outing than push your luck.
9. Rethink Traditions
Create new traditions when the old ones don’t work out. Those glass ornaments handed down from your great-grandmother may not be the best idea if your child likes to rearrange tree ornaments daily. Rather than deal with frustration and possible hazard, why not use plastic and paper decorations?
10. Safety First
If your child is a “runner” or tends to wander off, designate someone to be in charge of watching them when you cannot. (We all have to use the bathroom sometime.) Use a piece of ribbon around a person’s wrist or a Santa hat for a visual “handoff” when it’s another person’s turn. Being specific and intentional about who is watching your child can help put your mind at ease.
The key is to be aware of and empathetic toward the sensitivities of your child and to create realistic expectations for not only your child, but for yourself, too. Keep in mind, also, that it’s just a holiday—it’s more important for your family to enjoy one another than it is for your child to comply with “holiday traditions.” Who knows? You may even get to drink a few sips of eggnog.
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