‘Tis the season to be…overwhelmed?
The holidays can be a wonderful season of sharing special moments with family, friends and neighbors. But, for children and youth with Autism the holidays can be a source of stress. Many young people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder thrive on quiet, calm and routine. The holidays however, are often the opposite. Between changes in schedule, travel, flashing lights, loud music and Aunt Suzie swooping in for a red lipstick kiss on the cheek, many children and families may already be saying “Bah-Humbug.” But there’s hope for the holidays! Keep reading to unwrap these sensory-friendly holiday tips from our expert Autism Connections staff that will help you survive, and thrive, this holiday season.
1. Protect Your Child From Sensory Overload
The holidays are never lacking in sensory stressors.
Between the loud music (we’re looking at you Mariah Carey), the abundant lights, heavy smells and busy crowds, it’s a wonder any of us make it through the season. But, as a parent you can make a conscious effort to reduce stimulation for your child.
- Say No -Think through the environment of holiday events and activities to see if they are right for your child. Remember, it’s okay to decline invitations that won’t support your child’s environmental needs.
- Dress Comfy – Clothing may help your child stay regulated and feel calm. Ditch the ugly sweater and allow your child to dress comfortably for holiday events.
- Come Prepared – Pack a fun “Sensory Bag” to help your child relieve anxiety when they are overwhelmed. Consider including headphones, a blanket, books, or a favorite fidget.
- Give an Out – Plan an escape option ahead of any activity. Knowing exactly where to take your child if an environment becomes too overwhelming will help you feel prepared and your child feel supported.
2. Preserve Your Child’s Routine
As a parent to a child with autism or other sensory needs, you know how important a routine is. Even if your child is thriving in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a change in an established routine can be difficult. The holidays will bring unexpected twists and turns, but you can set your child up for success by limiting change where possible.
- Plan the Day/Event – Let your child know the schedule and plans for the day with notice if possible. Often, breaking the day into hours or steps will help your child anticipate what comes next. Once you’ve communicated the plan, practice it.
- Stay Close to Home – If possible, limit travel. Reserve long trips or extended stays for less stressful occasions.
- Respect Their Space – Don’t disrupt your child’s sleeping arrangement or sensory safe zones to accommodate guests.
3. Prepare Your Child For Social Interactions
The social demands of the holiday season can be heavy for
neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals alike. Preparing your child for upcoming events, visits and new social interactions will help them remain regulated and confident.
- Practice Together – Outline how various holiday gatherings or activities will go with your child, paying special attention to social norms and cues.
Practice these with your child.
- Pick a Code Word – Decide on a code word for when your child may need help. Choose a word they can remember and help them learn that if they ever feel stuck or uncomfortable in a social setting, they can use the code word to ask for help.
- Practice a Rule of Ones – When in doubt, just pick one. Attend one event, purchase one new outfit, invite guests over one time, etc.
Parents, with careful planning, these sensory-friendly holiday tips, and a whole lot of grace, it is possible for parents to embrace the holidays with hope and joy! While you plan, adjust, and deescalate in the days ahead, remember that these magical moments are just as much for your neurodivergent family as they are for any other neurotypical family. Your holiday may look different, but that’s okay. After all, as a family that’s been touched by an autistic child, you already know the ways that being different can be so, so good.
For more information about Judson Center Autism Connections or if you have questions about your child, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org and 1-866-558-3766.
By Hannah Gregory