Making Holiday Connections with Children on the Autism Spectrum
For many people, the holidays are a happy break from their daily routine – but families of children on the autism spectrum understand well with the unique challenges that changes in that routine and unexpected events can bring. Unfamiliar holiday activities like gift giving and decorating may be difficult for a child on the autism spectrum. Extended family members may not understand the child’s behavior. As parents, we want to make this special time of year enjoyable for all – and with some planning and preparation, there are many ways you can help make that happen!
- Help your child prepare to meet new people and go new places. New people and places can be a large source of stress for your child over the holidays. Help them be more comfortable by giving them a photobook of people they’ll meet and places they’ll go to look through and talk about often. Social stories about these situations can be a wonderful support for your child. When it’s time to travel to a new place, be sure to bring along your child’s favorite toys, games and books to comfort them.
- Continue using behavioral support strategies. There is no better time to use visuals like a calendar, planner, or visual schedule to help your child understand the changes in routine they’ll be facing. This will help prepare your child and provide them with a sense of control over what is happening around them.
- Have a plan in place if your child starts becoming overwhelmed. Larger gatherings can become overwhelming for anyone, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Determine a place in your home or discuss with family or friends a place in their home that your child can go to reset. Teach your child ahead of time to go to that place and engage in some calming strategies or soothing activities when starting to feel overstimulated.
- Practice holiday activities with your child in advance. Gift giving, unwrapping presents and holiday decorating are just a few examples of activities that might be new and stressful for your child. Introducing decorative changes gradually and practicing unfamiliar activities ahead of time in the safety of your home helps your child be more comfortable engaging in them at a holiday gathering.
- Maintain as much of your child’s regular routine as possible. The holidays can cause a major interruption in your child’s schedule, but maintaining other aspects of their routine like sleeping, waking and eating times can help your child feel more secure throughout all the events of the season.
- If you want to avoid potential questions or remarks from family members, let them know ahead of time that the holidays can be difficult for your child. A quick note or phone call explaining that the hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be stressful for your child helps your family members better understand your child’s behavior. Giving specific examples like possible unexpected reactions to a new situation like opening a gift, not responding well to hugs, or needing to eat a different meal from everyone else can be helpful.
As you help prepare both your child and family members for happier holidays, the most important thing to do is to keep your child’s needs first. You are the expert on your child’s strengths and needs, and you know how to help make this potentially stressful time enjoyable and safe for them. If you have any questions as you plan for a happy holiday, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s health care provider for advice.
About the Author
Barbara Head, MS, SSP, LPA is a Psychologist at the Tim and Carolynn Rice Center for Child and Adolescent Health