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The sights, the smells, and the sounds of the holidays are something that many of us look forward to each year. Traditions and gatherings bring families together for those once-a-year celebrations, and we hurry about preparing for gift giving and sharing holiday meals together.
For families who have a child with autism, the holiday season can bring some challenges with all of the excitement. The things that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside during the holidays are the very same things that can cause stress for a child with autism.
There are lights, music, different foods, new people, and a complete disruption of the normal daily routine. Of course, each child is different in his/her response to all of these things, but it is well worth your time to consider how the holidays and all that comes along with them may affect your child. Preparing ahead of time can make family gatherings and holiday celebrations a joyous occasion rather than a struggle with a child who has autism.
Prepare your child
Before the hustle and bustle of the holidays begin, sit with your child who has autism and watch some holiday movies or videos, or visit the library and pick out some books about the holiday that is coming up. Help your child to visualize what the holidays will be like.
- Talk about the reason for holiday traditions.
- Talk about who will be coming to visit.
- Talk about expectations.
- Talk about what to do if/when he/she feels like he/she needs a break.
Include your child in the holiday preparations
Making your child a part of holiday preparations can help your child with autism understand the meaning of the holiday and warm up to the idea of any holiday events or family gatherings that may be on your calendar.
- Let your child help with decorating around the house.
- Plan some holiday crafts that you can do together.
- Ask your child to help bake some holiday treats.
- Include your child in planning the menu- let him/her choose something he/she will enjoy eating.
- Take some short shopping trips and let him/her pick out some simple gifts to wrap for someone special.
Know your child’s limits and tolerances
If your child with autism has difficulties with crowds and loud noises, a family gathering could overwhelm your child very quickly. Try to arrange for a space that your child can go to in order to get away from the crowd and the noise. This will be much easier in your own home. If you are at a relative’s home, you might want to make arrangements in advance for a quiet spot.
Make sure your child is wearing comfortable clothing. Itchy sweaters and new shoes creating blisters on his/her feet are probably not in anyone’s best interest. Of course, we don’t want to allow pajama bottoms with no shoes and no shirt, but finding something comfortable and appropriate to wear is important for teaching your child to make a special occasion special.
Communicate with family ahead of time
There may be some relatives at the holidays that aren’t completely familiar with autism and all of its characteristics and challenges. It might be a good idea to explain to these relatives the best way to interact with your child. It doesn’t have to be a long discussion- just enough to let the other party know that you are aware of any potential situations and just enough to let the other party know that they need not take offense at any of your child’s words or actions.
Let your relatives know that it might be necessary to leave the room to attend to your child or leave early from another person’s house if it becomes overwhelming for your child or for the family. Thank them ahead of time for their patience and understanding.
If you are going to be away from home, pack a bag of favorites to keep your child with autism entertained and calm. Bring some favorite snacks, gadgets, and even a change of clothing so that your child has some options to choose from if he/she feels stressed or uncomfortable. Just having something familiar to reach for can bring more peace and more time to spend with family.
In the unfortunate event that a relative insists on delivering unsolicited advice or harsh commentary about your parenting skills, take a deep breath and remember that this was probably inevitable.
You can respond in one of two ways:
Take the opportunity to educate your relatives about autism and explain the challenges that come with it. Offer some ways to respond or communicate with a child who has autism.
Remind yourself not to take these comments and unsolicited advice in a personal way. Be gracious, thank them for the input and address your child’s needs away from the eyes and ears of the rest of the guests.
Take a break
If the environment that you are in is overwhelming, there is nothing wrong with taking a little time out – for yourself, for your child, or both.
- Step outside and take a walk or toss a ball around.
- Sit in the car for a few minutes and listen to music.
- Find a room or a location in the house where guests are off-limits- sit or lie down and do some deep breathing exercises to calm the anxiety you or your child might be feeling.
The goal is to reset, reboot, and refresh!
Call it a day
Sometimes, the best idea is to cut the visit short and go home. Hopefully, you can plan well enough to be able to socialize, have a meal, and relax a little after the meal. However, autism always comes with surprises and challenges and if it becomes overwhelming for you, your child with autism, and all of the guests at your family gathering it is probably in everyone’s best interest to say goodnight and try to make an exit before things escalate.
If you and your family are facing these challenges with autism, we care! Circle Care Services in New Jersey is here for you. We offer a wide range of services for children with autism and their families. We can help with social skills, communication, repetitive behaviors, behavioral struggles, and more.
Call for a consultation now!