By Taylor Levesque, MA

Deep breathing techniques. Thera-putty. Sentence starters. Checklists. Of all the many strategies and techniques carried around in an MGH Aspire clinician’s toolbox, possibly the greatest is preview. In the busy, semi-controlled chaos of the holidays, considering giving yourself and your family the gift of preview.

Preview for Your Child or Teen

Provide the ‘Big Picture’ of the Holiday
Give your child or teen the bigger picture, or gestalt, of this holiday. What holiday is it and what traditions is it characterized by? Are there specific routines or activities affiliated with this holiday? Will this holiday bring your child the sometimes-uncomfortable scents of many “interesting” foods or the need to use the awkward “social fake” when Grandpa gives you the same pair of socks that he gave you last year? You can do this by reading a story book about Halloween, researching the Thanksgiving dinner online with your child, or having a family discussion about the “big picture.”

Dive Into What Can Be Expected
After giving your child the bigger picture of the holiday, preview some details about what can be expected. Who will be at the gathering? What will be on the menu? What might people talk about there and what can teen add to the conversation? What will the celebration look like? Is there a schedule for it? Can your child play a special role in holiday traditions or activities? Something as simple as watching a YouTube video of Diwali prayers and celebrations, creating a mock-up Thanksgiving lunch menu on construction paper, or looking through pictures of family members attending the Kwanzaa gathering will go a long way.

Plan for the Unexpected
When might be a convenient time for your child to have some alone time if they need a break? What about if your teen wants to leave the holiday gathering early? When the unexpected hits, call upon proactively-placed tools and techniques. You are the expert on your family. Work together with your children/teens and any hosting relative to carve out safe spaces that are sensory friendly and can provide respite. Find her a quiet space at Auntie Ginny’s house to read her favorite comic book, bring his headphones and weighted blanket for the before-dinner mingling, and provide them a script to tell others they need a break from the festive holiday stimulation.

Preview for An Outsider (like that interesting relative, Uncle Bob)

“Here is what you can expect.”
Dolores and David mean well when they ask you if your daughter with autism is attending the family gathering. What they aren’t telling you is that they are curious, unaware, interested, and eager to help in any way possible. Although they are trying, Dolores and David still (years later!) don’t know exactly how to best host your child for Hanukah. Send family members an email or put in a phone call ahead of time. Tell Dolores and David where your child succeeds and in what areas she may need more assistance. Explain her quirks and intricacies to them, and let Dolores and David know that your daughter may use certain strategies. Most importantly, open up and normalize dialogue about your child or teen.

“Here is how you can support my family.”
As you preview your child or teen’s needs with others, give outsiders a “to-do” action item to prepare for your family this holiday season. By giving relatives a specific task or project, you will empower them to feel confident and capable in supporting your family in a way that matters. For example, provide a social story for all family members to read before exchanging Christmas gifts or post a visual schedule of Halloween activities on your door. Provide others with concrete ways to ensure your family’s success this holiday season.

“Are you interested in learning more?”
If you feel so inclined to continue the conversation with curious outsiders, provide them with take-home resources to facilitate the growing of their neurodiversity vocabulary. Create a simple, one page document about Sensory Processing Disorder. Pass along a copy of one of Temple Grandin’s many masterpieces. Connect on Facebook to further the conversation virtually.

Now that you’ve previewed the holiday season for your children, teens, and the curious Dolores and David, make sure to give yourself that same gift of preview. Holidays happen. If your holiday season was a success, congratulations! Pat yourself on the back, accept the praise of others, and allow yourself to recharge for your next family gathering. If you’d prefer to forget about the holiday season altogether, do just that. But first, remember to commend yourself for all the hard work you did to get to the other side—plans may go awry, but Plan Z is still a plan even if it’s not the plan you had previewed.

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