The holidays can be very stressful for a child with autism. While this time of year is enjoyable for most people, it can easily become overwhelming and lead to misbehavior and melt downs. This can be disappointing and frustrating for family members, especially the child’s brothers or sisters.
People with autism often like routine, as it can give them a sense of security and comfort. However, the holidays bring lots of change– changes to the environment, changes in routine, changes with the people that come to visit, and traveling. For a person who depends on routine and struggles with communication, the world can easily become confusing and scary. Here are a few tips to help manage the stress of the holidays for your loved one with autism.
Give Some Control
Are you going to rearrange the furniture for the Christmas tree? Try asking your child what they think beforehand. Let them place decorations, pick out wrapping paper, or choose a side dish to go with Christmas dinner. Giving a child some choice can bring security and a sense of control with change.
Be Respectful of Routines
Its common knowledge that many people with autism rely on routines to help them navigate their world comfortably. The holidays should be enjoyed, so try to respect and maintain routines as much as possible. Here are a few things to consider:
- The Environment: While putting up decorations and changing the environment, keep in mind your child’s routine. Will placing the tree block their favorite view of the street or force you to move their favorite chair?
- Sleep Times: People on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with sleep. Minor changes to their sleep routine can severely affect their sleep patterns. While traveling or during the school break try to keep your child on the same sleep wake schedule.
- Food Routines: One of the ways we celebrate the holidays is with special meals. The goal of special meals is to bring family and friends together to enjoy each other’s company. It’s not the time to introduce change to your child with autism. Make sure that along with the special foods there is something familiar and enjoyable for your child to eat. If you are going to a relative’s house for a meal, offer to bring a couple of side dishes.
Less is More
Too much of anything can move a child from happy to overwhelmed.
- Gifts: For many children the best part of Christmas is the anticipation of opening presents. Lots of presents means lots of fun. For some kids with autism the number of presents can go from fun to overwhelming. Too many presents can be too much to take in and process. Think back to last Christmas or your child’s last birthday– was this the case? After five or ten presents did the whole process of opening gifts become too much for your child? If so, this Christmas think about quality over quantity. Or alternatively, break up the time opening gifts. Perhaps try opening half the gifts on Christmas Eve and the other half on Christmas day. (Note: If you choose this option make it very clear at what point you will stop so that your child is fully prepared.)
- Decorations: Think about sensory stimulation when you decorate your home. It may be better to stick with clear white lights rather than flashing colored lights on the tree. Too many blinking, tinkling or moving decorations can become a constant sensory distraction in your home and can keep your child on edge.
- Visiting: The goal of a visit with friends and family is to enjoy some time together. Plan breaks ahead of time for your child. Make sure that they have a calm space to go to and have a clear way to communicate with you that they need a break. Communicate with friends and family that this is not punishment, but a short rest. Make sure your family understands the importance of respecting your child’s quiet time. After what you feel is a good break, make sure to encourage your child to reengage with friends and family.
Make a plan, practice the plan, and most importantly stick to the plan.
- Simple plans are usually good plans. Your plan doesn’t have to be extensive; it just needs to answer the question “what comes next?” For example, I wake up on Christmas morning– what comes next? We wake up, we eat our special breakfast, we brush our teeth, wash our faces, and then open presents.
- Plan for meltdowns. Nobody wants to think about a meltdown during the holidays, but they do happen. If one happens, what are you going to do? Communicate to the child what comes next. If you have a meltdown, I’m going to lay you on your bed with one of your new toys and cover you with a weighted blanket until you feel better. I will set the timer for 20 minutes to check on you. If you feel better then you can come back and join us. If not I will set the timer again for 20 minutes. Make a clear plan that your child knows will be executed and is one that they can follow.
- Communicate your plans to friends and family. Make sure that they know what the plans that you have practiced with your child are. Make sure they understand that a schedule and a plan will give your child comfort and confidence so that he or she can enjoy this special day.
Need to find a special gift? Check out our autism gift guides.