With the holiday season just around the corner, we’re all looking forward to our particular traditions and spending some quality time with the family. However, for children with autism and their parents, this time of year can present plenty of challenges. So here are five tips to help families with children with autism to have a happy holiday.
Autism and the Holiday Season: 5 Tips for Parents
By Estee Rothstein, BCBA, Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy, a New Jersey-based provider of in-home therapy for children with autism
1. Ease into the festivities
Change is often difficult for individuals with autism, so this can result in some holiday hiccups! Therefore, look to manage this change by slowly easing your child into the festivities. Talk to them regularly about the holidays during the lead-up, and discuss what they’re looking forward to and what they’re worried about.
If your child is school age, speak to the school about the festive activities they have planned. Coordinate these school activities into how you gradually increase your child’s exposure to the holidays.
2. Go slow with the decorations
Holiday decorations can come with their own set of challenges. They alter the familiar environment of the home and can cause sensory issues for some children with autism. That’s why families can benefit from slowing, putting up decorations over a few days, or even weeks.
If you’re putting up a Christmas tree, some families choose to put the tree up on one day, then slowly add decorations over the following few days, then put the lights on at the end. It can also help to involve your child when picking decorations, so they have exposure to them before you even start putting them up.
3. Maintain a routine
While it may be challenging to maintain your exact routine, trying to keep as many aspects as possible can help. Doing this includes things like bedtimes, meal times, and screen time. Where a change of routine is unavoidable, let your child know ahead of time.
Where new activities are being introduced, try and put these into a routine. Doing this could include opening the advent calendar every morning before breakfast or turning on the Christmas tree lights every day at sunset.
4. Plan the presents carefully
Presents can become another flashpoint during the holidays. If your child finds lots of gifts overwhelming, you could restrict it to just a few from the immediate family, or stagger the present giving over a few hours or days. Or if the element of surprise is particularly stressful, discuss what the presents are beforehand.
When it comes to wrapping, you could consider alternatives such as gift bags or tissue paper, which can be much easier to manage if your child has difficulties with fine motor skills.
And of course, with presents, there’s no escaping Santa Claus. Be conscious of how you talk about this and the information your child may get from friends, TV shows, or movies. Avoid framing it in terms of a “good and a naughty list,” as this can be very stressful for some children.
5. Don’t get too hung up with traditions
Families can place a lot of pressure on us to maintain traditions over the festive period. But assess every expectation being placed on you and your family in terms of the impact it could have on your child. If eating a traditional meal on Christmas day is too much of a change, then discuss this with your extended family.
Or if Grandma and Grandad’s house is the traditional venue for the extended family on the big day, discuss just spending the morning or afternoon there. You can then spend the rest of the day in the familiar surroundings of your own home with just your immediate family.
Remember, every child is unique
The most important thing to bear in mind is that every child is unique. Autism is, of course, a very broad spectrum. What works with one child may not work with another. But the basics of maintaining familiarity, routine, and avoiding significant changes should help most families to have a happy holiday. With these tips for autism and the holidays, you will better be able to manage a stress-less holiday break.