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    11 Ways to Prepare for Happy Holidays with a Child on the Autism Spectrum

    Topics: Autism & Emotions, Autism & Transitions, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, Autism and Physical Spaces, Infant/Toddler (0-3), Elementary (4-12)

    The end-of-the-year holidays are supposed to be happy occasions, filled with joyful traditions such as family gatherings, elaborately home-cooked meals, the exchanging of gifts, parties, fireworks, and other festive activities. They’re supposed to be a time to look forward to and enjoy, but enter a child with autism into the mix, and the dynamics can suddenly change to the point that a parent or caregiver barely survives the stress of the season. 

    It is only natural to wish we could enjoy a happy, relaxed, and joy-filled break and that our autistic child would experience in the same way. The reality is that for children with autism, the holidays can be far from that. 

    Changes in their daily routine, no school, long travel times to a relative’s home, crowded rooms full of people, the exposure to different sights, smells, and sounds, sleeping in a different bed, and people trying to hug or touch them can be very unsettling for them.

    As a grandmother and caregiver of an autistic individual, I’ve learned over the years that lowering my expectations and preparing my grandson for the holidays ahead of time not only helped me to survive but helped my grandson and me to thrive and enjoy the season, too.

    family at thanksgiving table with daughter with autism

    Here are some things I learned that may help you, too:

    1. Be Flexible

    Flexibility is important for everyday life with an autistic child, but especially during the holidays. Being flexible can help you avoid being overwhelmed when you may have to change plans quickly because your autistic child is not able to cope with a certain situation. Starting the holidays with a flexible mindset will make any changes to planned activities less disappointing for you and your family. 

    2. Plan Ahead and Put It on a Calendar

    Plan for the holidays early, if possible, and mark the dates and places you will be and what you will be doing on a printable calendar. Post it it at eye level in an area of your home where your child is sure to see it. Talk about the fun things you will be doing in an upbeat and positive way every day. Make it something for your child to look forward to.

    3. Keep Things Calm and Predictable

    Don’t overschedule and keep as much of the daily routine as possible during the holidays. If your child uses one, follow the visual schedule your child is used to for the majority of the day, and just change the icons or information for out-of-the-ordinary activities. Try keeping morning and evening routines the same. Being able to see what will happen differently in between will be comforting for your child and help him stay calmer.

    4. Prepare Your Child with Visuals

    Write a Social Narrative (sometimes called a Social Story™) for your child about what will happen and who they will be seeing during the holidays. Show photos of family members that they don’t see often and pictures of the places you will be going if you are traveling for the holidays. Include details of how you will be traveling and how long it will take before you will get there. The more you prepare your child, the smoother transitions and changes in their routine will go.

    5. Have Their Backs

    Autistic children will have a much easier time coping with the chaos of the season if they know we’re on their side and will listen to them when they communicate that the situation is becoming too overwhelming for them. They need to know we’ve got them if they can’t make it through an entire dinner without a fidget or iPad, or if the sensory overload gets too much, that we will give them a pass entirely and find them a less stimulating environment. 

    girl with autism by christmas tree

    6. Ask for Help

    Enlist the help of family members and friends and explain to them that it’s common for autistic children to have sensory issues, such as the inability to tolerate certain sounds, smells, tastes, or sights. They also may have difficulty recognizing people, and it may take them a little while to respond to greetings or questions. Autistic children can also be bluntly honest when a situation may call for diplomacy. Remind those at the family gatherings that this doesn’t mean that your child is being rude, but that they’re simply wired differently. Explain that it’s better to respond calmly and compassionately to the child than shame them for their autistic characteristics. Get your family and friends on your and your child’s side and allow others to step in and help you, too.

    7. Give Gifts They Like

    Practice gift-giving with your child ahead of the holidays. You may need to script and practice what your child should say when receiving a gift, and encourage them to accept gifts they don’t like graciously without voicing their dislike or refusing to accept them. Even then, they may not always remember to say the right thing. My grandson once told an unsuspecting guest that she’d gotten him the wrong gift, which visibly upset her. It took some explaining that he was not being rude, but simply stated the fact that he had indeed asked for a similar but different item. Encourage family members to give the gifts on the child’s wish list rather than the gifts they think a child that age should like, or a therapeutic item they feel may benefit your child. Even if the gifts are “childish” in their opinion, and below your child’s age range, it’s better to give them something they like and will be entertained by than something they will reject and won’t touch. (One popular gift suggestion is the popular Stages Learning Sensory Builder Blocks.)

    8. Share Your Child’s Special Interests with Family and Friends

    If your child has special interests, tell your family and friends about them ahead of time so they can engage in conversation with them about it. Also prepare them that your child may repeat phrases or information several times, and explain this is normal autistic behavior. Remind them that even when their conversation style is different, and it looks like your child doesn’t understand, it’s still rude to talk about them as if they are not right there in the room. They understand more than you think, and any negative comments will hurt and affect them. 

    9. Keep Them Safe When Things Go Wrong

    Regardless of the preparations you make, there may still be some times when your child loses their ability to cope and melts down. This is the time when they need your support the most. They may not be able to express their feelings and why they exploded.  While a child is melting down is also not the time to lecture or punish the child for not following the rules or not being able to cope with multiple sensory issues. They may need some time to process their feelings, so give your child a chance to calm down in a safe and preferably secluded place.

    father and son with autism lighting menorah

    10. Have an Exit Plan

    If you sense your child is nearing a breaking point, it’s always best to have an exit plan in place to remove them from the situation before they enter full-blown meltdown mode. Take the child outside, sit in the car for a while, or when visiting family close to home, consider taking the child home earlier so the rest of the family can continue to celebrate and spend time together. When visiting family further away from home, try to pre-arrange a room or place where you can take your child to calm down. Have some calming toys or activities prepared ahead of time that you know will soothe them.

    11. Be Kind to Yourself

    After everything has been said and done, try to relax and determine to enjoy this special time of the year with your family. Take things in stride, even when your child breaks a rule or behaves in an unexpected way. Pick your battles wisely and cut yourself some slack

    Happy Holidays!

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Written by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan

    Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan is an author, public speaker, and Certified Autism Resource Specialist from the Netherlands. After working abroad as a teacher and humanitarian for 25 years, she moved to the US in 2006 and assumed the care of her then 6-month-old grandson, Logan. There were signs of autism at an early age, and the diagnosis became official in 2009. She has been his advocate and passionate about promoting autism awareness and acceptance ever since. Logan is the inspiration behind the Autism Is...? (tinyurl.com/5aj73ydd) series of children’s books she initially wrote for him and later published. Ymkje currently lives in California with her now 15-year-old grandson, and besides writing, presents autism training workshops for early childhood educators, parents, and caregivers. You can read more about her story in her newly released book, Autism on a Shoestring Budget, [Early] Intervention Made Easier (https://tinyurl.com/ysxhxbmf). For more information, you can visit www.autism-is.com, www.facebook.com/AutismIs, and/or contact her at autismisbooks@gmail.com.