Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful. ~Norman Vincent Peale
As beautiful an image as this conjures up, this isn’t always the same Christmas experience felt by children on the Autism spectrum, especially those with sensory processing issues. Although the idea of gifts, snow and yummy treats sound exciting to your ASD child, the holiday experience can be extremely overwhelming. Rather than soft and beautiful, it could look and sound more like this to your child:
So what can you do to help alleviate your child’s holiday stress? Here are some common causes of holiday anxiety and what to do about them.
Over the top decorations. Flashing lights, musical wreaths, tinsel everywhere… it’s a Christmas wonderland to you but it could be a Christmas nightmare for your child.
Before choosing the blinky, flashy (stroke-inducing) light strings, you can first take your child to the store or to someone else’s home to see how they respond to similar decorations. Get them involved in the process, too! Allow them to interact with the decorations and help choose where they will go. It also helps to decorate in stages over the course of a week rather than having your house suddenly go from the safe haven your child knows to an overwhelming environment.
Family gatherings and routine disruptions. Whether you’re having company or going to a relative’s for holiday festivities, both involve a disruption to the schedule you worked so hard to keep with your child. Visual schedules and social stories can prepare for this disruption and help your child know what to expect.
If you’re having company, make sure your child has a quiet space to retreat to. Explain to relatives and other children that your child is in “quiet time” (not the same as time out!) and will come out when he or she is ready to play again. If the quiet space is your child’s room, consider having a special sign that can be hung on the doorknob that alerts visitors that “do not disturb time” is in progress.
If you’re going to someone else’s home, have an exit strategy! From personal experience I will tell you – DO NOT rely on anyone else for a ride home if your child has had enough for the day. Work with the host to establish a quiet space ahead of time and let the other guests know that regular breaks may be needed for your child. You also may want to pack some back up foods in case you have a picky eater or a child with food allergies. I’m about to experience this with a sibling I haven’t seen in almost a decade. He decided to have a big family ham dinner when we arrive in NY. I have one picky teen that eats four SPECIFIC foods only (none of which are on the menu), one with extreme food sensitivities, and then there’s me, who no longer eats meat or animal products. Should be an interesting gathering
Gift confusion. Does your family put gifts under the tree before the big day? If so, you may find a surprise – your child may open them early, and they may open everyone’s! Prepare your child for family gift traditions. Let your child play Santa and hand out the gifts to all the guests and family members – a busy mind and hands help keep temptation to open early at bay! Also, if your family takes turns opening (not everyone annihilating the packages at once), passing around a special ornament will help signal to your child whose turn it is.
Your child turns into a whirling dervish during travel. Yes, this has happened to me. In fact, before social media was popular, a certain airline actually asked us NEVER TO RETURN when we deboarded the plane. It was insane.
Driving has also been challenging. Although I am more in control of stops, breaks and other issues during a road trip, it can still go awry (and has). Here are some things that really saved my bacon:
- Noise blocking headphones for the trip
- Personal audio headphones for a handheld game system, portable DVD player, iPad or laptop
- Approved snacks and drinks that didn’t contribute to hyperactivity and digestive issues
- A visual schedule of what to expect once we arrived and during our stay
- A few sensory “fidget” items for him to calm himself with
- A nature app, DVD, or CD to play at the hotel at night for winding down
- Frequent stops to get out and stretch
Next week I am driving my children to New York/New Jersey from Atlanta. That’s 12-14 hours, depending on food, bathroom and stretching breaks. You can bet your sweet bippy I’ll be packing all of these things and employing many of the tips I’m sharing with you!
Over to you. What holiday tips keep the stress level down in your Autism household? Share by commenting below!