From the first Halloween costume siting to the Christmas and New Year’s clearance sales, holidays can be a worrisome time of the year for families living with autism. Social calendars start to fill up with crowded, non-sensory-friendly events that can make the most extroverted of individuals exhausted. The holidays shatter routines that you’ve established or are trying to establish.
Trust me, I’ve been there with my son, and have had the honor of helping other families through the holidays as well.
To help you and your family not just survive the holidays, but thrive during the holidays, we’ve put together this:
The Holiday Survival Guide for
Awesome Families Living with Autism
If you are nervous, you can’t hide it and your child most likely will respond behaviorally. You must learn to be the calm in the storm. (Trust me when I say this comes with much practice.)
Confidence is earned through preparation.
If you are planning on going somewhere new, you may want to scout it out first so you know the environment better and can know what options are available. If you are going to a relative’s home you haven’t visited, go visit with your child so they see it without the extra stimuli first.
Be honest with yourself and with family about what your family’s specific needs are. I have not so proudly had to say the following:
My son needs to bounce and if his jogging trampoline is not available, he may jump on your bed (nervous laugh), so, can I bring his trampoline and where should I put it?
Waiting to open presents is too hard for us right now. For this holiday to work he really needs open his presents first. While he is happy, I can enjoy watching you open yours.
My son’s goal this year seems to be breaking as many ornaments as possible because the crash of the glass is very satisfying and we are up to 26 so far. If you have a glass ornament on your tree, he will break it. I will do my best to run interference, but I am not really good at it.
Right now you might not really know what to say, expect, or request and that is ok to talk about too. Open dialogue is valuable.
Start your own traditions.
Traditions have to start somewhere! Don’t be afraid of disappointing people. Sure it was sad when my nephew said he missed me coming to events. I do miss it sometimes, too. I made a choice for my family to place them first. Mental and emotional health are valuable for everyone. Now it is our tradition to:
- Have gift exchange on whatever day we make it! It’s the surprise that matters… and other schedules we need to accommodate.
- We don’t unwrap presents, because presents would not stay wrapped under our tree anyway. So each child has their section under the tree.
- A tree is not a necessity. A festive wreath will do if one needs to avoid the great ornament breakage of 2005 and the eating of the bulbs of 2004. These historic events made that tree my nemesis! Safety first. Incase no one else will tell you, non-breakable ornaments are just a challenge and can be broken by those that strive to do so. Stuffed or felt ornaments seem to survive.
- Make gingerbread houses the week of Christmas and then destroy them (they are not gluten friendly). We obviously like to break things.
- New tradition for us is to have small dinners with family rather than participate in the large dinner. I like the time I get to focus on my guest, and they get to know my son much better, too.
Now that we have taken care of the caregiver, let’s turn our attention to our most precious reason for wanting the best holiday ever: Our child. Consider the possible needs that your child may have and ideas to meet those needs. Here are just a few to consider:
Sensory needs come in all forms. Your child may rock, flap, spin, hum, twirl hair, pull hair, bite/chew, pace, etc. These behaviors are aids that are automatically reinforcing and help to comfort. So as long as your child is safe and others are safe, embrace this self-regulation. Bring along the tools your child may need and some extra for others that want to join in:
- Playdough or molding clay. Your child has their own and then bring some to share for other family members to join in to create a social opportunity.
- Spinning tops or dreidel. No game is necessary, just spinning is ok. Find a spot or surface that works.
- Sensory bag with a few items your child likes to play with or needs (e.g., chewelry, sour gummies, cars with good wheels for spinning, etc.).
- Stash extra items in your car, not everything needs to walk in the door with you. And making trips to the car is good when you need to pace a bit.
- Eating can be sensory related. Bring your child’s favorites (the other children will think you ROCK!). Whoever said chicken nuggets aren’t holiday food and that pizza can’t be next to the turkey has never truly lived.
Make a plan.
You know your child best and the place you are going. I know it is easier to hand over the phone or the iPad, however in a social situation this “play alone by myself toy” may get frustrating because of all the noise. Do you really want to pull it away when it is time to transition to something your child really does not care to do like eat at the table? Probably not. Just don’t depend on that working. Have a backup plan.
Observe the environment.
Sensory is tricky. These behaviors should also serve as warning signs for you to pause and observe the environment. Something may be overwhelming, and it may be time for a break. If your child reaches meltdown mode, and you walk out the door for a break, you just communicated that screaming gets you access to leaving. If this were socially acceptable most men would walk through the mall screaming. It is important to help before that breaking point.
- Locate a space that your child can go or you can take them when you see an increase in self-stem/sensory seeking behaviors. This is good to identify before you need it and let your hostess know how you will be using it, like bringing in a mini-trampoline before dinner.
- There is a time and place for everything. If your child cannot spin where they are trying to spin, then twirl them to a better location.
Waiting is something that has to be learned and tolerance has to be built in for that. Most Behavior Analysts (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) have plans to teach this skill that take months to build. During the holidays is not a time to try this as a family.
- Waiting in line for candy may not work. You may need to go to the house with no line.
- It is ok to eat a snack or dinner before everyone else. If your child does not typically eat at the table, then this is not going to start today.
- Waiting for a present is hard; I don’t care who you are! If waiting must happen, bring a few extra presents for your child to open or they may try to open everyone else’s!
We all want our child to be polite. What if your child just says it like it is and does not consider the feelings of the other person? Family members may get offended.
Prepare family members by having a frank conversation about autism. Not easy and no one really wants to do this, but it can be helpful. My mother thought that I was angry with my siblings a time or two. I was not. I just loved them enough to educate. Eventually, my family would meet other children like him, so I wanted them to understand that he is not going to make eye contact (so please stop asking) and he is not going to hug you because you have too much cologne on and yes, he is biting and banging his head because you took his seat at the table. It totally can be the little things. It paid off. Now, they can advocate along with me. The flip side is that they can also say to me what others are afraid to say. I like that we are all trying to figure out how to socially navigate and accommodate my son’s needs as we integrate as a family.
You can role play with your child what to do when they get a bummer gift or the nasty candy. The more you can practice the better. Yes, wrap the present (e.g., tissue box, comb, socks, underwear, etc.) and give them an appropriate response (e.g., “thank you” with a smile).
- Play with noise makers before New Year’s Eve.
- Practice knocking on doors and saying “Trick or Treat.”
- Children with autism learn skills better through repetition and practice.
- Everyone does embarrassing things in their lifetime. You and your child will have your share of those memories too.
Every individual with autism has communication deficits. Each individual is unique. Meet your child where they are at and provide support.
If your child has limited expressive language. Use actual pictures. Smart phones are the best! I have family text me pictures or find them on Facebook so my son knows who he is going to see and where we are going. Talking needs to be simple and to the point. Say what you want your child to do (e.g., walking feet only at Grandma’s house).
If your child struggles to initiate conversations, help draw them in by talking about things they love to talk about with family. Even if it is for just a brief moment. Moments matter.
Conversation is easier sometimes one on one. Don’t be afraid to suggest to a relative to approach your child and request to play their favorite game. Your family wants to interact and most of the time they don’t want to do it wrong. So your prompts and tips can help them.
Rally a team for the day of an event. Your team should consist of people that can help and know what to do when a meltdown occurs. Do this prior to any event because meltdowns, no matter how they look or if they are just periodic, do happen.
Know that people will stare and probably give you some well-meaning advice that is not helpful and may feel rude. When this happens turn your focus toward your child because they are the ones that matter. On lookers will forget, your child will remember you were there. During a meltdown, they need you in control.
- Make sure your child is safe and so are others around them. You can ask others to move or to give you a minute for their safety. I find if you use phrases like “for your safety,” people move faster.
- Stop talking. If you must talk use short, simple one-word phrases.
- Increase access to stuff and to your attention as your child begins to calm down. The calmer your child is, the more good stuff they can receive.
- Make your way to a quiet space as soon as you are able to allow you and your child to regain composure.
- Don’t plan on an event to be a real teachable moment. The teachable moments are before and after.
If your child’s meltdowns are shut downs, then allow them time. Redirect family until your child is ready to talk again. Let family know when your child is ready to talk.
If someone causes a meltdown, don’t be afraid to talk with them respectfully and not in front of your child. This will help to shape their behavior, strengthen your relationship with them, and most of all help your child.
And if you think you may have offended a family member? Did you give unwarranted advice or worse? Then apologize!
Please do not be discouraged or throw in the towel, if the tips you apply fail to accomplish a meltdown-free or autism-friendly Norman Rockwell holiday.
I hope you have somehow found this helpful. I apologize that it could not be a top 10 list or just simple bullet points. I don’t think the challenges and beauty we face living with and loving someone with autism can truly fit in that small of a space. This is a think outside the box type of neurological disorder, and through it, my son is teaching me to embrace new traditions with each passing year.
Belinda Hughes, MA, BCBA
President, Behavior Associates of Indiana