The holiday time is already stressful and overwhelming; add a special needs child into the mix, and you’re at a whole other level. We’ve collected our favorite holiday tips to help you through the season. Remember each child is different, so what works for one child may not work for another, but definitely try as many as you can!
- Take care of yourself first and foremost. This one is across the board. Take time to relax and decompress. Don’t create expectations for your holiday season, do what’s best for your family, just live in the present and enjoy the little moments. Don’t stress yourself out about the holiday season. Your child will realize if you are stressed and they will feed off of your energy. It won’t be a perfect holiday season; it never is, even in families with typically developing children. Just enjoy the time with your family!
- Sensory issues are one of the biggest problems for those with autism, especially during the holiday season. Everywhere we go there are more people, bright lights, loud noises, holiday smells, new foods, uncomfortable clothes and much more to overstimulate and overwhelm your autistic child. Being aware of this can help you create a more pleasant holiday environment at home and prepare better for external holiday environments. This may mean investing in some noise canceling headphones, or allowing your child to wear sunglasses inside. You might start listening to holiday music several weeks before the season, begin traveling to stores during busy times to prepare for the crowds, and practice wearing winter gear periodically throughout each day before its needed.
- Create a safe place for when your child is feeling overwhelmed. This can be your child’s room at home, or ask to borrow a room in the host’s house. This room should be quiet and have some of your child’s favorite things – a stuffed animal, blanket, and toys. Be sure your child knows how to ask for a break when they need one. This could also look like going outside and taking a walk.
- Stick to routines as best you can. There is already a lot of disruption in your child’s normal schedule since they are out of school, there are more events and parties, they see different people than usual, and their daily schedules are much more variable. Add visitors and gatherings at their home creates even more disruption. Try to keep bedtime, meal time, nap time, quiet time, play time the same. Consistency will help your child know what to expect.
- Prepare your child for change. Visuals like a schedule, photos of past holidays & family members can help your child remember past holidays and know what to expect this holiday. Use a visual schedule or calendar to count down until the holidays.
- Decorations with flashing lights, unusual textures or loud noises can be overstimulating. One option is to take your child to the store and see what decorations they are drawn to and what they avoid. Gradually put up and take down decorations because many kids with autism dislike change in their environment. Engage your kid by letting them help decorate.
- Explain your child’s needs to family and friends. Tell them their triggers, problem behavior, and how to react. Tell them what overstimulation looks like and when you need to intervene. Have a calming plan in place, and share that with your relatives as well. Give them 3 tips on how to interact with your child. For example, they don’t like to be hugged, they’re wearing headphones because it is too loud for them they’re not to be rude, and they like to play with their blocks the most.
- Minimize unnecessary surprises. Begin telling your child about what to expect during the holiday season early on. Give plenty of notice before transition times. For example, let your child know 10-15 minutes before it is time to eat dinner or open gifts, or before it is time to leave.
- Your ABA tools can come in handy like visual schedules, first then boards, token boards, pairing and timers. Check out blog #3 for an in-depth discussion of these tools and more.
- Don’t forget about your children without special needs. The holiday season shouldn’t be consumed with making only your special needs child’s experience joyful. The rest of the family deserves this as well. Create new traditions that everyone in the family enjoys. Take each kid out for some special one-on-one time.
- Practice gift opening. Gift giving can create problem behaviors in your children. It is important to practice waiting, taking turns, saying thank you, opening gifts, not opening gifts, not taking others’ gifts, and reacting when someone takes your gift. Practicing this ahead of time will help the actual gift-giving go smoother.
- Praise and reward your child for good behaviors. This is important so they know that they are doing what you want them to be doing. Don’t lose sight of this during the holiday season when there is a lot more going on; it’s especially important to communicate expectations and celebrate your child’s successes!
- Let your child eat before the family meal. They can have picky palettes or may be too overstimulated to eat. Don’t force your child to try everything or eat with the family. It is important to stick to routines like mealtime. Another option is to bring a dish to share that you know your child will like.
- Less is more sometimes – shorter visits, fewer outings, less decorations, less food options, less gifts to open. Space out holiday visits so they are not all in one day, or back-to-back.
We hope these holiday tips will help you out this season. And remember, everything will be ok!