The holidays can be overwhelming for anyone. For those on the spectrum, and their families, it's even more so as schedules and routines are disrupted. The additional sensory issues are difficult for children with autism but with careful planning and information sharing the holidays can be more enjoyable for everyone. Here are our best tips for managing holiday stress.
Prepare your child:
You can prepare your child by talking about who will be there, the schedule changes and what to expect. Preparation can occur in various ways such using a calendar or schedule that lays out the plan of what things will happen that day.
You may even want to prepare a social story or a small photo album of who they will see and a few things about each person along with examples of what they can say to the different friends or relatives of who will be there.
You can also make sure you pack familiar items for your child to have with them. These can be favorite food, books and toys. Having these familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations and avoid an autism meltdown. Having these familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Consider investing in some inexpensive novel toys you might find at the Dollar Store or take out some CD’s and DVD’s from the local library and have some new items available for keeping kids amused as well.
Preparing for travel:
If you are travelling over the holiday period, talk to your child and have books, pictures and other communications systems such as a visual schedule in place that prepare them for unexpected delays in travel and rehearse what will happen when going through security, boarding and flying. JetBlue has a useful guide for children with autism that is called “Adventures with Autism: The Airport Experience!” that is helpful for explaining airports and airplane travel you can find here. Usborne also has some helpful books about plane rides and a wind up Plane Book and activity books some parents have found to be helpful.
Prepare your loved ones:
It can also be helpful to prepare family and friends with strategies to help them minimize anxiety and engage with your child. Not only is this a crucial part of autism awareness, it can really help to have other adults who can support you too. Explain the difficulties your child may have with noise or a holiday dinner environment and if there are dietary challenges so the will not to expect them to eat what everyone else is eating. Let them know he/she is not just misbehaving but is instead learning little by little how to handle these situations. Offer suggestions such as if they prefer to be hugged or not that help to facilitate a smoother day.
When possible have your child help:
This may include prep activities such as helping with decorations or measuring ingredients for a recipe, but it could also include giving him/her a job such as answering the door or helping to set the table.
Provide an escape plan:
This is a time where there will be a lot of sensory input coming at your child between the people, different smells and schedule changes which will cause anxiety to be higher. When you notice your child is becoming anxious help them find a calmer place where they can regroup. Take a walk around the block or visit a nearby playground if you and your child need some time and space away from the crowd. This can make a big difference in managing meltdowns for those with autism.
Ask for a safe space:
You can ask for a room or space for your child can retreat to for some quiet time when the stress starts building up and some decompression time is needed.
Items to have on hand:
- Sensory Items such as a weighted blanket or lap pillow.
- Fidget items such as putty, slinky or koosh balls.
- Headphones with something to listen to and enjoy (noise canceling headphones may be helpful here).
- iPad or tablet. Download a movie ahead of time or have a few DVD’s to watch on a portable DVD player.
- Preferred toys and books
- Engage them in a calming activity (for example, turn off the lights, rub his/her back, play soft music).
It may be helpful to let other guest or family members understand where this space is and its purpose.
If the person is on a special diet make sure there is food available that he or she can eat. Make sure you have some food available that they can eat. You may want to also include some extra snacks or drinks to avoid hunger related issues.
As challenging as holidays may be they also provide a time for fun memories to be created and an opportunity for friends and family to befriend spend time with your child. This is a good time to think back over the past year and to remember what accomplishments have been there as well. Perhaps a new skill was learned or there were improvements with their communication. Maybe this year a new friend was made or temper tantrums are decreasing. Whatever special moments there have been with your child an unprompted hugs or a beautiful smile there is a success and something to be grateful for.