The holidays can be a stressful time for children with autism and their families. Sensory overload occurs quite easily, what with the extra stimulation the holidays bring. Here are some ways you can help your child and family prepare for the upcoming holiday season and minimize the amount of stress he/she deals with.
Use Social Stories
Social stories are a great way to teach children on the spectrum about the upcoming holiday season. Autismsocialstories.com/christmas offers a variety of social stories for the holidays, or you could even create your own. These social stories help you create a plan for your child, and they can also help you assess your child’s level of tolerance for certain holiday activities. For example, if your child struggles tremendously with the “Santa Claus” social story, visiting Santa this year might not be a great idea.
Keep It Simple
Many of us like to go big for the holidays, but that is likely to change when a child on the spectrum is involved. Children on the autism spectrum do not necessarily do well with all the sensory stimulation of the holiday season, such as lights and music. If your child has sensory issues, you might scale down your decorating, at least indoors. Put up a tree (again, social stories and planned explanations can assist your child in understanding why there is a tree in the house). Place a few decorations around that you don’t mind your child touching or playing with (because he/she will probably be curious) or keep decorations out of reach. Avoid any type of plant that might be poisonous, such as poinsettias or mistletoe, or older painted decorations that might have lead paint.
Allow For Down Time…
The holidays are a busy time for many families, with parties and other holiday comings and goings. Schedule in “down” time for your child (and even for yourself) to prevent an overload of holiday cheer. Learn to say “no” – you don’t have to attend every holiday party or event – know what your child will tolerate and what he/she won’t. And if possible (and you want to), have the holiday feast at home, where your child is most comfortable. This allows your child to go to his/her “safe” place when things get overwhelming without having to completely stop the holiday festivities.
…But Do Try New Things
Allowing for down time is important, but exposure to new things is important too. At least try some of the holiday traditions (using social stories or other methods to plan/prepare), such as visiting Santa or taking a winter train ride. If your child won’t sit on Santa’s lap, that’s okay – even standing next to a strange man in a red suit is a huge accomplishment for many children on the spectrum.
Don’t Get Discouraged
This is especially hard for parents who love the holidays. Many children on the autism spectrum are disinterested in the holidays, and they don’t have much care for presents or holiday traditions. Some children won’t open up presents or pose for Christmas pictures, while others may actually have meltdowns due to the changes in routine. Work within your child’s repertoire; if he will tolerate a picture, take one, if not, why not settle for a candid shot? If your child is interested in opening presents, revel in it; if not, let siblings or family members “help” open up the gifts with him/her. Understanding the holiday from your child’s point of view will help you make more sense of the day(s) and keep your stress level from rising.