Holiday Tips for Children with ASD

For many people, the holiday season is a joyous and eagerly anticipated time of year. For families of people with autism spectrum disorders, it can also be a time of disrupted schedules, broken routines, and other challenges. How can families lessen the holiday stress and make this time of year more enjoyable? We’ve got some ideas, garnered from input given by the Autism Society, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Easter Seals Crossroads, the Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at Logan, and the Indiana Autism Leadership Network.  

  • Be prepared. Think about your child’s individual needs, and how much preparation is appropriate. If he or she suffers anxiety over upcoming events, you may need to consider how far in advance you reveal certain happenings. Use a calendar to mark the dates of different holiday events, creating a social story to explain what will happen at each event. Prepare yourself for the holidays too, realizing that you may be the recipient of unsolicited advice. Understanding that this advice will probably be well-meaning, practice saying “I’ll think about that” with a smile.  
  • Consider your decorations carefullyFor some children with ASD, decorations can be disruptive. To ready your child for the changes you plan to make to the house, it may be helpful to look at photos from previous holidays. It might also help to engage your child in the process of decorating, involving him or her in shopping for or putting up decorations. Once your decorations are in place, make sure you have direct, specific rules about what can and cannot be touched, and that you are consistent in enforcing the rules.  
  • Ring in the holidays gradually. Some children with ASD have trouble with changes in their environment. If that’s the case for your child, it may be best to decorate the house gradually, keeping the child as engaged in the process as possible. Creating a calendar detailing what will be done each day can also be beneficial.  
  • Limit obsessing over gifts. A child with ASD may obsess over a particular desired item, and if that’s the case, it can be helpful to set limits. Be specific about the number of times the gift can be mentioned, perhaps giving the child five chips or tokens, and explaining that he or she can exchange one token for a designated length of time spent discussing the gift. You can also offer to write the gift down on a wish list. Be clear with your intentions, and if you are not going to purchase the gift, explain that, too.  
  • Empower by teaching self-management. Teach your child how to get support when a situation becomes overwhelming. If you’re having visitors, for instance, create a safe space so that the child can exit the event if he or she is feeling overwhelmed. Encouraging this kind of self-management is empowering, and will serve your child into adulthood. If your child is not at that level of self-management, work together ahead of time on a signal or cue that will indicate anxiety, so that you can prompt your child to use the safe space. You might even want to practice using this space in a calm manner ahead of time.  
  • Bring a touch of home on your holiday travels. Take along your child’s favorite foods, books, and toys when you travel for the holidays because this can help to alleviate stressful situations. Before the trip, discuss what will happen on the trip, using social stories to rehearse scenarios like boarding a plane, and preparing the child for situations like delayed travel.  
  • Use a photo album to prepare for visiting familyShow your child photos of relatives and guests you will see during the holidays, speaking briefly about each person. Then allow your child unrestricted access to these photos during the holidays.  
  • Practice and use roleplay to prepare for gift exchanges and other traditionsRehearse scenarios like giving gifts, taking turns opening gifts, receiving gifts, and responding to an unwanted gift. You might also find it helpful to practice religious rituals your child will encounter during the holidays.  
  • Prepare your extended family with appropriate strategies. Help your family members understand the person in your family with ASD, letting them know whether hugs are appropriate, and other factors that can facilitate smooth interactions during the holiday season. Coach them on strategies for minimizing behavioral issues.  
  • Keep the sleeping and eating routines steady. If your child is on a special diet, have food available that he or she can eat. Be careful about sugar consumption, and try to keep the sleep and meal routines as close to normal as possible.  
  • Understand your loved one with ASD. Think about his or her individual needs, and know how much sensory input can be tolerated. Consider your child’s level of anxiety, and how to prepare for situations that may arise. Avoid stressful situations when possible, and be sensitive to your child’s need for a quiet place to regroup.  

Knowing how to prepare can help you have an enjoyable holiday season, and knowing where to find the right resources can help you overcome the challenges of ASD. If your child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, STAR of CA is here to offer support. Founded in 2006, we provide behavioral and psychological services to people with ASD and related disorders in a nurturing environment that offers support for the entire family. We love what we do, and are devoted to improving lives through focused, caring services. You can contact us through our website. 

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