The decorations. The visitors. The gifts. The indulgent treats. Regardless of which traditions you enjoy, one thing is certain: For most people, the holidays are a festive time of fun and one they look forward to all year long.
But for an autistic child, the holidays can be overwhelming. The changes in routine, new foods, unfamiliar sights and sounds, and interactions with friends and family can send even the most high-functioning child into a tailspin of anxiety, stress and other challenges.
That doesn’t mean you have to forgo your favorite traditions and keep the holidays under wraps, though. With some preparation and flexibility, you and your child can enjoy the holiday season while still maintaining the basics of autism therapy management.
Planning and Preparation
As the parent of an autistic child, you know routine is vital to your child’s emotional well-being. However, the holidays are usually anything but routine. You may not be able to maintain your usual daily routine and structure, but make every attempt to stay as close to it as possible. That usually means being organized and prepared well in advance. Use lists and calendars to fit your holiday preparations in to your normal activities and schedule.
You’ll also need to prepare your child for some of the things that will happen throughout the holiday season. The idea is to anticipate potential problems and develop solutions ahead of time so as to avoid “meltdowns” and greater issues for everyone. For example, if you’ll be traveling to someone else’s home for a gathering, speak to the host about your child and his or her needs, and get a sense of the environment so you can prepare your child for new rules like removing his or her shoes when he comes inside. Let your child know what will happen when you arrive; for example, let him or her know you will first open gifts and then eat a meal. Consider creating a “social story” with your child that includes all of the aspects of the event, and prepares them for the interactions and experiences.
Preparations shouldn’t be limited to events outside of your home, either. Because the crowds and noise of a holiday gathering can be overwhelming to an autistic child, create a “holiday-free” zone in your home where he or she can go and escape from the stimulation for a while. If you are going to someone else’s home, ask if there is a quiet room where your child can retreat for a bit if necessary; most hosts will be willing to allow your child to hang out in a spare bedroom for a while to stay calm. Be on the lookout for signs of distress, such as humming or rocking, so you can be proactive and take a break before a meltdown.
It’s also important to anticipate dietary concerns, especially when visiting others. If your child is on a strict diet, consider packing appropriate foods to take with you, or if the host is willing, discuss your child’s needs and come up with alternatives. It may just mean that the host serves a grilled cheese sandwich to your child while everyone else enjoys turkey.
Gift giving is a favorite holiday tradition, but it can be challenging for parents of autistic children. Ask your child’s teacher or therapist for a list of gift ideas; not only will it help you with your shopping, but when friends and relatives ask for ideas, you can give them appropriate options.
It’s not just the actual gifts themselves that are a cause for concern, though. For some autistic children, unwrapping gifts can cause stress or frustration. Consider practicing opening gifts ahead of time, which helps familiarize your child with the sensory aspects of gift giving. If you’re giving toys or other items that come in packaging, consider removing the items from the packaging before wrapping. For a child with a low tolerance for frustration, receiving a new toy and having to wait to play with it while Dad struggles with the plastic packaging could trigger a meltdown.
The best way to avoid disappointment and frustration on your part during the holidays is to manage your expectations. Even people who don’t have special needs children have a tendency to put pressure on themselves to create a “perfect” holiday, and that’s simply not realistic. Instead of focusing on getting everything right, cherish the time you have with your friends and family, and consider starting new traditions that take into account your child’s needs and preferences.
Above all, do not shield your child from the holiday festivities. With the right planning and a good deal of compassion and understanding, the season can be merry and bright for everyone.
Image by Stuart Miles from freedigitalphotos.net
About the Author: Charlene Lapwell is a child advocate who blogs about parenting special needs children.