Tips for a joyful, peaceful holiday season

Family-Dinner

In the movies, this time of year is full of joy. Smiling families gather around tables filled with delicious dishes that everyone loves, merry music is always playing, and gifts are met with exclamations of “just what I wanted!”

In real life, the holiday season can be challenging and stressful for any of us, but especially for individuals with autism. Many of them do not enjoy caroling, holiday parties, special treats, shopping, decorations, hectic schedules, or visiting friends and relatives.

Making a few adjustments can help everyone enjoy the holiday season more, so we thought we’d share a few ideas.

Schedule and plan ahead

  • Keep routines as typical as possible.
  • Display a calendar that includes activities, parties, and travel details. Be sure to note the dates and times of when you will leave and when you will return.
  • Use a daily visual schedule so that your child is aware of what will be happening during the day. This can reduce anxiety.
  • Consider using a timer (or tangible number of objects) to indicate the end of an event.
  • Write a social story to share the details of an upcoming event.

Adjust your expectations

  • Consider which traditions might not work for your child – visiting Santa, attending parades or concerts, decorating every room of your home – and then avoid them if you can.
  • Remember sensory issues that might adversely affect your child’s experience of sights, sounds, smells, and touch. Try to make accommodations, such as ear plugs, headphones, or a distracting toy.
  • Dressy clothes might feel stiff, uncomfortable, or even painful for our loved ones with autism. Test these in advance of a big occasion or avoid altogether.
  • Allow your child to retreat from activities if necessary. Designate a “quiet space” in advance. If you are hosting at home, let him retire to his room. If visiting friends or relatives, create a private space designated especially for him.
  • If your child generally sits at the table for five minutes to eat dinner, it is probably unrealistic to expect the child to sit for 10-60 minutes at the holiday table for a big dinner.
  • Your loved one with autism may be a picky eater and may not appreciate “special” holiday foods. Have favorite foods on hand and allow choices.
  • If your child generally avoids hugging people, it is not realistic to expect the child to receive hugs willingly from family members, especially unfamiliar relatives.
  • Our children might not be able to express gratitude for gifts or thoughtful gestures the way others might expect. Explaining in advance to others can avoid hurt feelings or confrontations.

Travel tips

  • If visiting a new place or people, share photos of these places and people with your loved one prior to the event.
  • Explain to relatives and friends what to expect from your loved one with autism. Check out this letter for ideas.
  • Help others be realistic by sharing your suggestions for what they can do to make the visit easier. For example: put away breakable objects, keep lights and music on a low setting, and put foods that the child can’t eat out of sight.
  • Share with family members the special interests of your child prior to your visit.
  • If you are flying, use a social story or take a tour of the airport so your loved one knows what to expect. Many airports have special programs that allow this; contact your airport’s customer service department. The TSA also provides information and assistance at 1-855-787-2227 or www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support.
  • Put everything your child might need in one carry-on bag. Include a change of clothes, calming items, favorite toys, a no-mess activity, and your child’s favorite music. Sunglasses can block lights that are too bright, and noise-canceling headphones can silence chaotic environments such as airports.
  • If you are traveling by car, and your child escapes from the seat easily, consider getting covers for the seatbelt buckles. Remember to check the child locks on the doors.
  • Use something visual to show how many hours you have traveled and how many are left. A timer can help your loved one count down the time until the next stop.
  • For more tips, check out this Travel Resource Guide.

General tips

  • Plan some sensory or calming activities during each day.
  • Have a “bag of tricks” ready at all times. For ideas, check out this previous blog post on creating an “autism survival kit.”

Above all, remember to give yourself and your child room to enjoy this time. Your holiday may not look like everyone else’s, but it can still be filled with joy and peace.

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