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The Christmas holidays can be a time of wonder and delight, taking part in family traditions, seeing loved ones, and a break from routine. The holidays can also be a time of stress for those on the autism spectrum who thrive on familiarity and predictability. This can be a difficult time of year, but with some preparation and planning, the holiday season can be enjoyable.
How can holidays be enjoyable for families with children who have autism? Take the holidays one day at a time and in stride. If the day does not go according to plan, that's OK. Respect the needs of the children and don't worry about what others think. It is us, the neurotypicals, that need to adapt to the person with ASD, not the other way around. It is easier for us to change and be flexible.
EIGHT TIPS FOR THRIVING DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON:
1) Use Social Stories
Create a social story for any new routine. If grandma is hosting Christmas Eve dinner, tell the child what the breakdown of the evening will be. Anxiety can arise over a change in the schedule. My adult children still worry that they won't be home in time for bedtime during Christmas festivities. If I let them know ahead of time about changes in the routine, they tend to do much better. Usually, what they want to know is when an activity will end and how will they know it is over. We give them a time that we plan on leaving and the kids do well with that.
The school schedule can also be interrupted with plays, concerts and assemblies. Teachers and educational assistants – give lots of warning about changes in the daily routine. Work in special activities into the visual schedule. Create a social story about a concert or a play the children will see. It is often anxiety rooted in fear of the unknown that causes challenging behavior and avoidance of new experiences.
2) Make sure to include quiet time
Allow for some quiet or down time during a day that has new experiences in it. Create a plan B if the school play is too hard for the child to sit through. If a music concert will be loud, perhaps use some noise cancelling headphones to lessen the sound. If the class is planning a Christmas party, walk the child through what it will be like. Maybe the child can also help with organization or suggest a favourite game to play. If a preferred activity is included in the day's events, the child is more likely to be enthusiastic about it. Think about scheduling a favourite activity right after a new experience so that the child knows when the concert ends, there is some computer time, games, or play time with a much loved toy.
3) Keep new foods to a minimum
Be careful about introducing new foods or ones that aren't usually consumed. Some children have food sensitivities and can't tolerate traditional Christmas foods like shortbread, chocolate and other delights. They may be interested in trying them, but check with the parents first to see if they can handle certain foods. The joy in the moment is never worth the aftermath of an upset stomach or GI system later.
4) Surprises aren't necessarily a good thing for those with ASD: this includes visitors and gifts
Some children on the spectrum don't enjoy surprises. If this is the case, don't give a wrapped gift or if you do, put a picture of what's inside the box on the outside of it. Predictability is key to keeping children calm.
For families, limit the amount of visitors to the house. Large groups of guests can be challenging for the person on the spectrum to deal with; so can an invasion of their space. Request that people not drop by without giving notice. This is a rule in our house that we insist people follow. Limit the length of a visit to something manageable. Every family willl differ.
If opening presents all in one day is too overwhelming, spread it out over several days. When our children were young, they took 7 days to open all of their gifts. It made Christmas last a long time because the kids felt they were seeing something new each day and they really explored that new item. Our son struggles with opening presents due to poor fine motor skills so we put his things in gift bags with tissue paper. He then has independence with opening gifts. Clear up boxes and wrapping paper as you go to keep the chaos to a minimum. Our kids needs a lot of alone time after opening gifts because they like to explore them at their own pace. We give them that space.
5) Break with tradition if it means happier children
This can be a hard thing to do, but keep your child's best interests at heart. My parents wanted us to come over on Christmas Eve and all day on Christmas because that's what we did before we had kids. They also expected us to to bring the children to Christmas Eve mass which was about 2 hours long. This was just too much much so we opted for a lunch and gift opening on Christmas Eve and just a dinner on Christmas Day.
Create your own holiday traditions that are meaningful to your child. Find ways in which they can contribute to holiday activities. Maybe they like to put sprinkles on cookies, stamps on Christmas card envelopes, hang decorations, make cards by hand, or create e-cards on the internet. My daughter loved to make a gingerbread house; she did that with her grandma.
6) Stick with one outing a day
Try to choose times that are less busy to do things. Mornings tend to be quieter on the roads. Matinee movies or shows are not as busy as an early evening show. Buy tickets ahead of time to avoid line-ups.
7) Stick with your normal schedule as much as possible
Try to follow normal mealtimes and bedtime. Getting enough sleep is important as are regular meals with preferred foods. If visiting someone, bring snacks in case your child doesn't like what is being served or can't tolerate it due to sensitivities.
8) Create a safe zone for down time
Have a quiet place for children to go both in their own home and in other homes. Ask your host ahead of time if there is an area your child can go to if they need some down time away from the group. Let people know your child's limits and ask that they respect that. Sometimes a simple accommodation like lowering the volume of background music can make a huge difference.