The holiday season can be chaotic–or at the very least, very different from the rest of the year. Many people enjoy holiday shopping, taking kids to visit Santa and seeing relatives they haven’t seen for a long time. For people with Aspergers or other forms of autism, however, the holidays can be an overwhelming, frightening and stressful time. During the holiday season, autistic people might be challenged by the following:
- Changes in routine that throw them off-kilter or increase anxiety
- Visits from people they don’t know very well, especially people who aren’t aware of or don’t understand their needs
- Sensory challenges such as being exposed to constant music, toys that light up or make noise, lots of conversations going on at once and foods that taste different or have different textures than they are used to.
All of these challenges, if not handled correctly, can lead to anxiety and meltdowns. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help your children–or yourself–stay as stress-free as possible during the holiday season.
Think About What Activities The Person With Aspergers or Autism Most Enjoys
During the holiday season, there’s a lot to do. Many parents like to take their children to kid-friendly holiday parties or take them to the mall to see Santa in addition to doing holiday shopping, going to see Christmas lights all around town, visiting friends and relatives and/or going to religious services.
Some of these events can be upsetting to children with Aspergers and autism because of sensory or other issues. In order to keep stress to a minimum, ask yourself a couple of questions:
- Why am I taking my child to this event?
- Does my child enjoy the event as much as I do?
This second question should not be asked judgmentally; it’s not an indictment of parents, but a way of ensuring that they are doing activities that their kids really enjoy for the most part. For example, if your child has problems with flashing lights, don’t take him or her to see Christmas lights just because “it’s a tradition everyone enjoys.” If the activity isn’t truly necessary (i.e. a family party full of relatives you’re looking forward to seeing) and your child hates it, consider skipping it. This will help your stress level as well as your child’s.
Prepare Your Child In Advance
It can help your child navigate changes in routine or other challenges at holiday time if you let him or her know what to expect. Depending on your child’s age and ability level, there are several activities you may want to engage in to help him or her become comfortable with what’s going to happen at holiday time. Some of the things you might want to try include:
- Showing your child pictures of relatives from previous holiday parties and pointing out who the relatives are and what they’re doing. Then tell your child when the relative will be visiting again and what is planned for the visit.
- Drawing simple pictures or reading a picture book that shows how to put up the Christmas tree or how other events go so that your child has an idea of what to expect.
- Having a tour of a relative’s house during a quiet time prior to a holiday visit so that your child can become familiar with it.
- Role-playing with your child
Tell Relatives Your Child’s Needs
If your child has sensory issues or other challenges, you should tell relatives about them in advance. It’s especially important to ask relatives to only give your child sensory-friendly presents or not to get offended or push it if your child doesn’t want a hug. That way, you can stop problematic incidents from occurring and can ensure that your relatives’ feelings don’t get hurt.
Some people are uncomfortable bringing up issues about what presents are okay to give your child because they don’t want to sound like they expect any present at all. You can get around this by writing a family newsletter or other item to send to your relatives that emphasizes that you want everybody to have a good time during the visit and that you are looking forward to seeing them. You can then add something like, “<Child’s name> has some special needs when it comes to the tradition of opening presents together. We don’t expect that everyone will give presents, but if you do want to participate in this tradition, here’s some things you should know.”
In addition to the issue of presents, be aware that some relatives are simply not going to understand or want to respect your child’s needs. These relatives may not really understand anything about autism and may think that you are being “too soft” or “not letting your kid be a kid.” It’s important to stand your ground with these relatives and make it clear that although you want to spend time with them during the holidays, these are the rules that you are setting so that everyone can have a good time.
Have Contingency Plans
Sometimes you can’t avoid situations that may cause meltdowns during the holiday season. For example, you may not be able to find someone else to watch your children while you go holiday shopping or you may go to a party at a relative’s house that has too much sensory stimulation for your child.
For this reason, it’s important to always have a plan for dealing with meltdowns during the holiday season. A meltdown resembles a temper tantrum but is set off by overstimulation or other problems that the child can’t verbalize. Some children can get violent during meltdowns, and it can take a long time for a child to calm down after a meltdown. It’s important to have a plan for dealing with the first sign of a meltdown so that you can solve the problem before the child’s behavior gets too out of control.
Some aspects of your contingency plans might include:
- Deciding where you will go if your child has a meltdown. You will want to scout out party rooms ahead of time for quiet corners you can use, or you may want to take the child to the car. You should also be prepared to take your child out of the area while shopping or doing other holiday activities.
- Discussing with your family, especially your spouse, what the plan is in case you have to take your child home early during a family event. For example, decide if you will all leave or if someone will stay at the party with other children.
- Finding people who may be able to babysit if you decide you don’t want to take your child to a particular event or party.
- Having items on hand that you know calm your child down such as a favorite toy, video or song so that you can more easily stop meltdowns.
The holiday season is challenging for everybody, ad it’s especially challenging if someone in your family has Aspergers or other forms of autism. However, if you prepare in advance, you can have a (mostly) peaceful holiday season.
This holiday season, give yourself the gift of greater understanding, peace and personal power. Coach Jack is offering one-on-one coaching sessions for parents of children with Aspergers and autism to help them understand, motivate and empower their children and to reduce conflict and improve the relationships between parents and children with Aspergers. Please fill out the quick contact form for more information.