Autism and the Winter Holidays

No matter which winter holiday you celebrate, it’s a magical time of year. Provided you’re not a grinch, most people look forward to the holidays for a chance to look back on the past year and reflect, to be with their families, to decorate, to give, and to just – be happy.

However, for the autistic toddler, child, or teen, holidays can cause extreme anxiety and sensory overload. No matter how dedicated parents are to ensuring the holidays go smoothly, there’s going to be some moment – some situation – some meltdown – that is going to be difficult.
Acceptance of that fact is the first step to getting through the holidays. Not every moment is going to be picture perfect. There will be some bumps in the road. However, there are a few ways to try to guide the holidays so that things go smoothly.

Surviving Holiday Gatherings
Surviving holiday gatherings can sometimes be the toughest thing. You’re in a strange place with a lot of people your child does not know very well. If there are other children, especially neurotypical ones, it can be quite overwhelming, which may cause your child to act out. Before you head out to grandma’s house for Christmas dinner, you may want to consider a few things first.

Is this something you should skip entirely? Yes, it sounds horrible – but, if it’s going to be a terrible experience for you as a parent and a terrible experience for your child (based on past history), it’s perfectly okay to sit this one out. If your family doesn’t understand, that is not your problem.
That leads to also offering to host the family gathering at YOUR house. While this may still overwhelm your little guy or gal, they will be in a familiar space, which is much more comforting when the anxiety comes.

If you do not want to skip and having the gathering at your house is a no-go, preparation is key. Find out ahead of time what the entire guest list will be and prepare your child for it. This is a good time to make a social story in a book, to paste pictures on a whiteboard, or to invest in a social story app that can help tell the story (such as Pictello). If there will be other children there, this is likely one of the most important parts to go over with your little one. There is no guarantee that this preparation will prevent a meltdown, but it may help the severity of one.

If there are special rules where you’re going (such as a room no one goes into!), this is a good time to discuss expectations. If your child has not been to the relative’s house in a while and it’s not too far of a trip, you can try a “dry run” several days before the event. This will familiarize your child with the space and come party time, they’ll recollect just being there.

As long as it’s okay with your family, arrive early. Arriving at a party when it’s in full swing can be completely overwhelming to an autistic child, no matter their age. If you’re a latecomer and 10 people rush you all at one time to say hello, it can cause extreme anxiety and a meltdown. Be one of the first guests to arrive, and as guests arrive slowly, your child will acclimate as the party begins to take off.

Inform your relatives that autism is a hush topic around the dinner table. It’s likely that your relatives may not understand autism. They may have a million questions. They may have tons of unneeded advice. Inform them ahead of time that now is not the time. There’s nothing worse than talking about your child while he or she is in the room. If your relatives are interested in the topic and have questions or want to offer advice, advise them to do it at a time when your child is not present.

Don’t force your child to hug auntie so-and-so. If your child does not want particular contact with a certain relative, that is their right. Autistic or not, this is not something you should force on a child if they’re uncomfortable.

Leave before you’re actually ready. If things are going great and it’s getting close to 8 PM, and that’s your child’s bedtime, don’t push the envelope. Make an early exit, skip dessert, say your goodbyes – all before the meltdown happens. You will have a much better memory of the event, and so will your child and the rest of the family.

If it’s failing, abandon ship. By now, you should be able to tell when this is simply not going to work. Don’t keep trying to discipline your child or keep forcing the issue. It may just simply not be a good day. Make your goodbyes, offer to host at your place next time, and head home.

Choosing Holiday Events
Other than dinner, maybe you want to take your little guy or gal out to a holiday event. It’s understandable. You want the magic of Christmas that every other parent and child seems to have. You want the smiling faces on Santa’s lap, the sleigh ride, picking out the tree, and so on.

First of all, pick and choose wisely. Don’t try to plan too many events that may have the tendency to overwhelm your child. Look for sensory-friendly events in your area (many cities now offer a sensory-friendly Santa at certain locations). If you are going to a Santa event, go early or late to avoid long lines. Just as with the holiday parties, prepare, prepare, prepare. Explain the event to your child, as well as how long they may have to wait, etc. If your have a smaller child and they become fidgety and impatient easily, consider bringing a stroller. Remember – it’s not about what anyone else thinks. If you truly want a happy holiday, think about what’s best for you and your family. It may be using a stroller, skipping the event altogether, or leaving before you’re ready.

Also, remember that a large man in a big red suit may be scary to a younger child with sensory issues. It’s true that most parents have urged their kids to sit on Santa’s lap even if they’re screaming and crying, but it may not be the best idea in this case. Feel the situation out. Talk about Santa for weeks leading up to the event. Look for YouTube videos of Santa. Read stories about Santa. Then, when the actual time comes, Santa won’t be nearly as scary.

Decorations and Embellishments
If you have an autistic child on the younger side, a Christmas tree may not be the best idea. Just like with very young toddlers, ornaments can become broken, wires may be a problem, and some children suffer from pica. You know your child best, but a tree may be too much for some. There are other options, such as felt trees that stick to the wall, with sticky felt pieces. Not only does this allows your child to decorate the tree themselves, it prevents accidents.

Christmas/Hanukkah traditions like the Elf on the Shelf and Mensch on a Bench are great ideas. Really getting into the story and the placement of the dolls can be fun for all kids, and if your child shows an interest, you can make a game of it. Countdown and advent calendars may also work well. As autistic kids love routine, and doing a countdown to whichever winter holiday you celebrate can be fun for everyone. Christmas music may also be a hit. If your child likes music, grab some sleigh bells and try a few Christmas songs on for size. You may find they do like Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The Big Day
It’s Christmas morning, and you’re thoroughly excited as the sun comes up, waiting for your little one to wake up and excitedly open their gifts. Like other holiday events, this may not be the picture-perfect image you have in your mind. Your child may not be interested in opening gifts. He or she may open one, then stop. They may open all of the gifts and seemingly not like any of them.

A good rule of thumb is to not let your expectations ruin the day. While you may want things to look like the Christmas/holiday or your youth or like years past with your other children, history may not repeat itself. On Christmas morning it’s a good idea to simply go with the flow of what your child wants and needs. When it comes to actually having a happy holiday, it may be time to put your preconceived notions aside. Maybe you’ll find a new routine you can do year after year, like watching the Christmas parade on television instead of opening presents. Maybe your child wants to go for a walk and get outside on Christmas morning (bundle up!) Maybe they’d like you to read them a story. Perhaps they just want a hug. Be prepared for anything, and go with the flow.

The name of the game during the holiday season is “relax.” No matter where your child falls on the spectrum, they will feel your stress. Try to slow down, tune in to their wants and needs, and have the best holiday possible – keeping some autistic-specific advice in mind.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientNextDoor. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and PatientNextDoor does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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