The holidays are a time of wonder and magic for many, but they can also be loaded with stress for children with ASD and their families. Changes in routine, diet, and social obligations can all contribute to problematic behavior and emotional upset. Here are 5 tips on how to help your child (and your family) have happy holidays:
Prepare your child
Have you ever rolled your eyes at holiday decorations going up in stores before Halloween was even over? Well, that’s the perfect time to begin preparing your child for holiday changes! For visual learners, things like social stories and videos can be useful tools to prime your child for what lies ahead. Consider including details like:
Keeping a level head when frustrated, disappointed, or sad can be a challenge even for adults, but it can be especially challenging for children with autism. Consider working with your child to create a list of strategies that they can use when situations are becoming too hard to navigate. Make a visual list of their strategies to refer to in the moment and practice using them ahead of time with situations from your own life and the child’s. “I feel sad. What strategy do you think I should use?”
Here are some possible strategies to consider teaching:
Ask for help
Take a break
Get a drink of water
Eat a snack
The holidays can be disruptive schedule-wise but keeping things consistent where you can will help your child self-regulate. Consider making consistent meal, bath, and bed times a priority.
Rules and expectations are another area to consider keeping consistent. Changing the rules during the holidays may be fun in the moment, but it will make for a stressful transition back to everyday life. Keep expectations and consequences consistent where you can, especially for important or safety based rules.
The adage, “Good fences make good neighbors,” is not just about creating a physical separation between you and the people next door but about creating and maintaining boundaries for yourself and your family. During the holiday season, friends and family might want to push your child further than they (and you) are comfortable. Discussing boundaries ahead of time will help you to avoid a fight in the moment and will make it easier to step in when problems do occur. Consider setting boundaries around:
Physical touch. Many children with ASD and related disorders do not like to be touched by unfamiliar adults. If your child does not like to be hugged, give adults that want to hug them alternatives (ask for a wave, ask for a high five, etc) that your child will be more comfortable with.
Behaviors to address and behaviors to ignore. Friends and family may be tempted to step in and correct behaviors they see as unusual or disruptive, which can cause additional stress for your child. Make clear which behaviors you are working on (and how!) and which you would like to be ignored.
Dietary restrictions. Food sensitivities are common in children with ASD, and an upset stomach can make it harder for a child to self-regulate. Make sure friends and family know what your child’s dietary restrictions are and have back up snacks available if needed.
Have an exit plan
Finally, despite your best efforts you may find that the excitement and busyness eventually become too much for even the most well-behaved child. Know the signs that your child is approaching their limit and have an exit plan in place for when this occurs. Where can your child go when they are overtired? What if bedtime is many hours away but they’ve reached their limit for social interaction? Finding a safe place where they can recharge will help not only your child but also the rest of the family to have a happy holiday.