By Cornelia Elwood, MA
Parent Support Specialist
The holiday season arrives with a flurry of flashing decorations, gifts, social gatherings, songs, and enticing aromas wafting from the kitchen. While this time of year is synonymous with joy and celebration for many, parents of children on the autism spectrum often face unique challenges. The sensory overload, social demands, transitions, and unstructured times that accompany holidays can be overwhelming for autistic individuals. However, with thoughtful planning and a few strategies in place, you can ensure a more peaceful and enjoyable holiday season for your family.
Understand the challenges:
- Sensory Overload: The twinkling lights, loud holiday music, strong scents of new foods and perfumes, and the unpredictability of hugs and unexpected touch in crowded spaces can overload individuals with sensory sensitivities, potentially leading to meltdowns.
- Social Demands: The holiday season often entails increased social interactions, which can be stressful and exhausting for autistic individuals with smaller reservoirs of social energy. Once your child expends their social energy, they experience depletion.
- Exhaustion: Long days of festivities and disrupted routines, coupled with anxiety from sensory overload, can lead to exhaustion and meltdowns.
- Transitions: Changes in routine, like traveling or hosting guests, can be unsettling. As established schedules and routines are disrupted, anxiety escalates and cooperation wanes.
- Unstructured Time: The holidays often introduce unstructured periods, which can be challenging for individuals who thrive on routine.
Seven Strategies for a Calmer Holiday Season:
- Accommodate the Sensory System: Seek out quieter spaces at gatherings, inform family and trusted friends about your child’s sensory needs in advance, adjust expectations about the duration your child can spend in noisy environments, and pack a sensory toolbox.
- Know Your Child’s Socializing Capacity: Gauge your child’s socializing capacity and set realistic expectations. Prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to social engagements.
- Use Visuals: Visual schedules and social stories are powerful tools for preparing your child for holiday activities and transitions. Create visual aids outlining the day’s events or explaining the travel process.
- Plan, Prioritize, and Schedule: Thoughtfully plan your holiday activities, prioritizing the most important events during your child’s best times of the day. Incorporate downtime and familiar activities into your schedule to help your child recharge.
- Maintain Consistency: While some deviations from routine are inevitable, strive to keep essential elements consistent, such as mealtimes and bedtime routines.
- Have an Emotional Regulation Plan: Develop a plan for helping your child manage emotions. Identify calming techniques and signals your child can use when feeling overwhelmed.
- Collaborate and Communicate: Openly communicate with family and friends about your child’s needs and sensitivities. Encourage understanding and collaboration to create a supportive environment.
- Practice Travel: If your child is not accustomed to long trips, practice short journeys beforehand to help them adjust. Utilize social stories and consider programs like the Wings for Autism program, which allows your child to practice airline travel within the airport environment.
In conclusion, with careful planning, understanding, and effective strategies, parents of autistic individuals can ensure a calmer and more enjoyable holiday season. By accommodating sensory needs, providing structure, and fostering communication, you can create a supportive and inclusive environment that allows your child to participate in holiday festivities while feeling comfortable and secure.