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With the holiday season comes family gatherings, cozy meals, vacation plans, and yes — a dash of festive chaos. Traveling to visit family can be stressful even when everything goes as expected. However, a bit of planning and preparation can help keep your holiday season the most wonderful time of the year.
1. Explain autism to other family members (and don’t forget about the kids).
Help your family members understand what to expect, as they may not know the best way to ask you questions. If there will be other children, be prepared to explain your child’s autism in kid-friendly way. Talk through the holiday traditions and consider your child’s needs and sensitivities. Some kids may fixate on particular decor or want to open gifts early. Other children may not respond well to a surprise gift, or may not react in an expected way. It may be better to come up with a wish list with your child and help family members prepare the gift in advance. In addition, your child may be particularly sensitive to hugs and kisses from unfamiliar people, even if they are family. Communication beforehand can help prevent any misunderstandings about holiday expectations.
2. If possible, arrange a safe, quiet haven.
Ask your host if there’s a quiet area of the house where your child may go if he/she needs a break from the festivities. Even if there’s not an entire room, it can help if you can arrive early to identify a relatively quieter corner to sit with your child. Bring familiar items from home to help calm your child (coloring books, a comforting toy, a weighted blanket, noise cancelling headphones, puzzles, etc.).
3. Practice tools for leaving a stressful situation in advance.
Before visiting family over the holidays, help your child identify strategies to exit a stressful situation and ways to feel less overwhelmed. Depending on your child’s needs, he/she may have a signal or a card to let you know that a break is needed. Be prepared with activities that will help your child feel calm. Practicing these strategies in a stress-free environment will help your child manage his/her emotions. It may help to notify family members that your child may need a break, and remind them that they should not interrupt during such times.
4. Role play holiday traditions in advance.
If you know in advance which holiday traditions will be shared, role play the scenarios at home, so there are fewer unfamiliar situations for your child. For example, your child could practice taking turns opening gifts, eating traditional holiday foods, hugging, or greeting family members. Work with other professionals like speech therapists, physical therapists, and teachers to familiarize your child with holiday vocabulary, routines, and expected social behavior.
5. Maintain other routines.
With the changes that come along with the holidays, try to keep all other routines such as sleep times, eating times, and regular therapy appointments as stable as possible. Your child may find it comforting to know that not everything is changing all at once, and that he/she can look forward to activities they find comforting.
6. Tag team.
Is possible, tag team with your spouse or recruit another family member to help. For example, one person can help sit with an anxious, overwhelmed child, while you stay with family, and vice versa. Other parents suggest, weather permitting, that one adult can take the kids for a drive or a walk to get a break from the festivities. It helps to have an extra pair of hands, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
7. Ask about the food.
Ask your hosts about the menu well in advance of your family gathering. If you know the food will be difficult for your child to eat for any reason, offer to bring a suitable dish, potluck-style. Or, pack enough snacks so that your child feels comfortable eating familiar, favorite foods. Knowing the menu in advance can help you and your host get ahead of any unwanted surprises.
8. Bring something for the kids to do.
As delicious as they are, holiday dinners can drag out for a long time from a child’s perspective. Help your child pack a backpack with entertaining activities. If there will be many kids, think about toys that are easy to share, or activities that can be done as a group. It can also help to discuss the day’s schedule with your child in advance, so he/she knows when the festivities will end.
9. Be flexible.
Set reasonable expectations and know that things won’t always go perfectly as planned. Embrace the spirit of the holidays, and remember that there’s no one way to celebrate with the people you love. Even with advance preparation, let the needs of your family guide your decisions. And if understanding family members offer help, let them help you.
10. And last, but not least, don’t be afraid to say no.
Finally, don’t forget to consider the needs of the whole family, including your own! Don’t feel obligated to say yes to every invitation if it’s not the right choice for your family. Before agreeing to holiday events, consider what the expectations will be for your child’s behavior. If your child is very active, will there be room for children to move around and be loud? If your child is sensitive to clothing changes, will formal dress be expected? Will your friends or extended family be understanding and tolerant to your child’s behavior? If your family does decide to go, don’t be afraid to know your child’s limitations, and leave early if needed.
Planning to see family and friends is an exciting part of celebrating the holidays. With forethought and thoughtful communication, your child can share in the joy of building and enjoying family traditions.
Sophia Chung is a Masters of Education candidate studying at Harvard Graduate School of Education, focusing on Technology, Innovation, and Education. She is passionate about learning through tinkering, advocating for inclusive education, and storytelling with kids.