Holidays can be a time of great joy and excitement, but they can also be stressful and disruptive. For families who have children with autism, extra planning is essential to keep everyone on an even keel. Managing expectations about what a holiday “should” be like, and minimizing the changes that will occur in your family routine will help reduce stress and avoid meltdowns.
Think about what happened at your holiday celebrations last year: what activities and events worked well, and what ones should have been avoided? A lot of the challenges at holiday time have to do with trying to take on too much: too much shopping, too much sugar, too many parties, too much travel, and too many visits with friends and relatives. Think about ways to simplify your holiday schedule. Less really can be more, because fewer disruptions to your regular routines can be reassuring and calming for all family members and lead to greater enjoyment during the special times shared together.
Prepare your child or family member for events and activities that are coming up, but not too early! If your child tends to become anxious about upcoming events, decide how many days or hours in advance it makes sense to prepare them. Visual preparation can be especially helpful: use the Stages Transportation Bingo Game to talk about upcoming holiday travel plans.
Less Is More
Start your holiday season by using this checklist to help you create ways to focus on the joy of the season and minimize the stress. More joy might just mean less of everything else. Less is not a bad thing: it allows us to pause and immerse ourselves in the real joy of the holiday season: our traditions such as singing, eating special foods, and enjoying time spent with loved ones.
- Fewer changes to daily routines. When possible try to avoid disrupting every- day routines such as getting dressed, eating meals, or getting ready for bed. If you are going to visit relatives bring reassuring and familiar objects with you that you know will help soothe your child and make bedtime routines and meals as similar as possible to how they are at home. To the degree possible, try to stick to a schedule in terms of the timing of meals and bedtime routines. If you are going to a party or a relative’s house, or even in your own house, help locate a quiet corner for your child to go to if activities and noises become overwhelming. Teach your child how to leave a situation when it starts to feel overwhelming, or for a child without this level of skill help them exit out of a situation that may be feeling too stressful or noisy. Let your child engage in activities that are especially calming for them, such as looking through a favorite picture book or playing with a familiar toy.
- Fewer New Foods. Most holidays involve new and rich foods that we only eat during the holiday season. For many of us food represents an enjoyable part of holiday celebrations. For the child with autism who is adjusting to unfamiliar relatives, bright decorations, changes in routine, noisy events, and overstimulation, tread lightly on asking him or her to taste new foods. Make sure familiar dishes are also served in order to minimize the number of novel experiences occurring for you child. Try to incorporate holiday foods that closely resemble every day foods your child enjoys. Minimize sugar and artificially sweetened foods that can have a negative impact on behavior.
- Less shopping. Make fewer trips to crowded and stressful stores and malls. Try doing more of your shopping online. Start by making a list of everyone you need to buy a gift for and jot down a few ideas for each person. Devise a spending range for each gift and stick to it! One common holiday stressor is spending more than you can really afford. Once you have your list and budget, then go online to specific trusted sites and as you shop check off the people on your list. For kids who have autism, presents such as Bingo Games and Lang-O-Learn beautifully photographed learning cards from Stages Learning can make wonderful gifts that also provide learning opportunities for your child.
- Fewer Decorations. Holidays often involve over stimulation including bright and blinking lights, loud sounds and music, and new smells. For children with sensory processing issues this extra stimulation can be overwhelming. New decorations can feel exciting and enjoyable for many family members, but stay tuned in to your child or family member’s capacity for overstimulation when surrounded by so many foreign objects. Ease into decorating the house gradually by looking at photos with your child of last year’s decorations or look at holiday images online. Give your child input into the decorating process and let them help with the Pay attention to see if certain decorations seem especially challenging for your child.
- Less Conflict. Prepare siblings and relatives by helping them understand how stressful and disruptive the holidays can feel to a child with autism. Talk about any special strategies that can help and be sure to emphasize that this will make the holidays more joyful for everyone.
- Less Perfection. Let go of your inner Martha Stewart and accept imperfection! Often the pressure we put on ourselves to make everything about the holiday perfect can backfire. We end of feeling we have failed. But in real life no one ever experiences a storybook holiday. Try to find humor in the cookies that are burned beyond repair or the relatives that always stay too long. Joy is not about perfection; joy is about appreciating what we have in front of us, flawed but still wonderful.
- Fewer Surprises. For some children with autism it is the lack of predictability and the disruption to routines that can cue the meltdowns. Find ways to reduce uncertainty for your child. One mother, Shawna Wingert, found that the anxiety created for her son by not knowing what his presents would be defeated the purpose of having presents at all. She found that telling her son about the larger presents he would be getting allowed him to relax, and she could still enjoy surprising him with some of his smaller gifts.
- MORE JOY!! As you work to eliminate the excesses of the season you will be able to focus more on what really matters: the joy of spending time with people you love and celebrating family traditions in a way that works for your family.