The holidays are overwhelming, over-stimulating, and stressful for almost everybody - whether you have ASD or not. In December of last year, The Washington Post Wrote an article titled, “Holidays can bring stress. Here's five ways to deal with it.” Through articles like these, we realize how similar we are to our children with ASD. The difference is that for those who aren't as acutely sensitive to holiday stimuli and triggers, it's easier to “fake it till you make it.”
If you have a child or family member with ASD it's essential to support their sensitivities and needs while still finding a way for the whole family to enjoy the love, joy, and spirit that the season has to offer.
After decades of working as applied behavioral analysts, we have learned that enjoying the holidays with ASD is in all that much different than enjoying the holidays without it. The key is to be strategic about your yeses and nos and help your child with ASD know what they can expect while creating a plan to support them if they need to bow out of previously anticipated events or engagements.
Sensory overload is one of the most significant issues for families of children with ASD. And we're not just talking about the sensory overload at large family or community gatherings. This time of year, there is a plethora of flickering light displays, jingling bells, and loud holiday music piped through virtually every sound system in the public arena. It's easy for children with ASD or highly sensitive children to be overstimulated almost anywhere they go.
To balance that, plan intentional quiet time and build it into your outings, errands, or any social events you attend. Unless there's a public holiday display the child particularly likes, it might be better to leave them at home with an older sibling, with the other parent, or with a knowledgeable caregiver to prevent them from potential overwhelm. If you'll be a guest in someone's home, it's worth talking to them ahead of time about a room or space to serve as the break spot or quiet space for your child if they become overwhelmed.
This is a busy time of year, which means it gets very easy to overdo it. Learn to say “maybe” instead of “yes” on RSVPs. Hopefully, most of your extended family and close friend network understand that you often have to leave early, take space, or skip certain events altogether. Always do what feels best for you and your family.
Unlike summer, where children and families can plan to attend summer camps or have access to safe daycare options, the holiday break can create stress for a child with autism who craves their typical routine. The more you can do to prepare your child for the two-week break, the better. For example, creating a visual calendar for the week or two they have off gives children a reference for how things will be different. They can see how things will be structured daily, making spending two or more weeks outside the normal daily rhythm easier.
If your child likes school or needs extra support, work with their teacher and instructional aides ahead of time to devise a mini school-like plan that involves some work each day that makes your child feel more like they are still on a school schedule. You can also connect with other friends who are home for Christmas break and schedule play dates, giving them the sense of a more socially connected weekday.
It's not a bad idea to prepare a holiday stimulation survival kit that's kept in the trunk of each car. It's easy this time of year to leave your normal bag of tricks at somebody's house, for it to get lost in an airport shuffle, or to be left at home amid all of the unpredictable schedule changes.
You know your child best, and the kit should be personalized to their needs. However, most ASD survival kits include things like:
The kit will come in handy when your child is ready to escape to their quiet place, calm their nervous system, and escape for a bit from overstimulation.
As you can imagine, practice makes it more predictable in the world of ASD. There are several things your family can do to model and practice typical holiday customs, experiences, or potential triggers. Just as your child had to learn how to practice taking turns while playing games or sharing toys with friends, and using their pleases and thank yous, now it's time to practice what's appropriate for the holidays.
As with the ASD survival kit, you know your child's needs and aversions best and should model expectations or responses accordingly.
While Grandma and Grandpa or family members who live close to you may understand your situation already, other extended family members and close family friends may not. So, just as you have to prepare your child with ASD for the holidays and potential upsets, it's also a good idea to prepare friends and family. The more they know, the more they can help support a successful holiday gathering.
Let hosts know about the things that could cause potential upsets, and alert them that your child may need frequent breaks - and that that's okay. Ask if they have a space that can be used as a quiet room while you’re there. Let hosts know that preparing for your visit might mean changing flickering lights on a holiday tree to ones that remain consistently lit. Maybe they turn the motion-activated singing reindeer or a “ho-ho-ho-ing” Santa Claus to the off position during your stay. And, of course, make sure they know not to take your child's reactions personally.
Are you afraid this holiday may end in the same disaster as last year's? Are you unsure how to support your child or family member with ASD this holiday season? Let the Autism Response Team help you. We offer personalized Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) designed to enable individuals with a disability to participate in life’s activities across all settings - including the holidays. Contact us to schedule a consultation.