While the holiday season is a time of joy and celebration, it can also be busy and hectic. There are many factors that may disrupt the usual routine — family visiting, decorations, traveling, holiday parties, gift-giving, and more which can be overwhelming for a child with autism. These five strategies may help you as a parent, and your child, to ease stress and maintain routine this time of year.
While you are already familiar with the holiday season and its expectations, your child may not be. Take time to explain to your child what Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or other seasonal holidays are and how you celebrate, i.e. setting up a Christmas tree, decorating the house, and giving gifts to friends and family. Use tools like social-stories ahead of the holidays to help prepare your child for upcoming changes around your house or in routine.
Set expectations for your child but also for yourself. One child may have no issues with sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall and taking a picture, but another child may not be comfortable. Set boundaries with family members about parties they may host, explaining that you might leave early before your child is overwhelmed. Arriving early at a party may also be helpful to allow your child to acclimatize to the number of people as they arrive. Setting expectations with gift-giving is also important. Explain when presents are given, that they are wrapped, and when your family will open them. Practice taking turns when opening gifts and saying “thank you” when receiving a gift.
Part of the reason holidays can be so stressful is the lack of a typical routine. Kids in school go on break, parents take time off work, and other family members visit. For children with autism, maintaining known routine as much as possible can be beneficial. Even though the world around them may look different, your child still needs the comfort of their usual schedule. Keeping activities like meals and bedtimes the same will ease some of the stress of the unfamiliarity of the holiday.
To your child, it may seem like the world has changed overnight. Places they are familiar with look different because of the decorations, bringing in new sounds, sights, and smells to a place of routine. It can help to bring out decorations gradually to allow your child time to adjust and acclimate. Minimize decorations that make loud sounds or have flashing lights if these are overstimulating for your child. If you’ll be attending a holiday party at a friend’s house, showing your child pictures of the space with the decorations ahead of time can minimize surprises.
The holidays don’t have to be all parties and over-the-top decorations. Find time to do a calm activity with your child to counteract the overload of sensory input. Plan breaks into your holiday schedule to allow both you and your child to unwind and practice self-care by doing something you enjoy. Don’t feel like you have to attend every single party you are invited to, and setting clear boundaries gives both you and your child the time and energy you need to make this holiday season as stress-free and enjoyable as possible.