The holiday season can be a stressful time of year for everyone, especially for parents of children on the autism spectrum. The sights and sounds of the holidays can be stressful and over-stimulating. There are many changes in routine, family events, parties, and vacations that need to be planned. Sometimes the stress of these changes can become overwhelming and the joy and happiness of the holidays might be lost. Here are some helpful tips to lessen your child’s anxiety and increase your family’s enjoyment of the holiday season:
Decorating and Shopping
- If your child has difficulty with change, you may want to gradually decorate the house. Decorate in stages, rather than all at once. It may also be helpful to develop a visual schedule or calendar that shows what will be done on each day.
- Allow your child to interact with the decorations and help put them in place.
- Flashing lights or musical decorations can disturb some children. To see how your child will respond, provide an opportunity experience these items in a store or at elsewhere first.
- Last minute holiday shopping can be stressful for children who rely on routines. If you do take your child shopping, allow enough time to gradually adapt to the intense holiday stimuli that stores exhibit this time of year.
Family Routines and Travel
- Meet as a family to discuss how to minimize disruptions to established routines and how to support positive behavior when disruptions are inevitable.
- Continue using behavior support strategies during the holidays. For example, use social stories to help your child cope with changes in routine and visual supports to help prepare for more complicated days.
- Use a visual schedule if you are celebrating the holidays on more than one day to show when there will be parties/gifts and when there will not.
- Use rehearsal and role play to give children practice ahead of time in dealing with new social situations, or work together to prepare a social story that incorporates all the elements of an upcoming event or visit to better prepare them for that situation
- If you are traveling for the holidays, make sure you have child’s favorite foods, books or toys available. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations.
- If you are going to visit family or friends, make sure there is a quiet, calm place to go to if needed. Teach your child to leave a situation and/or how to access support when a situation becomes overwhelming. For example, if you are having visitors, have a space set aside for the child as their calm space. They should be taught ahead of time to go to this space when feeling overwhelmed. This self-management strategy will also be helpful in future situations.
Gifts and Play Time
- If you put gifts under the Christmas tree, prepare well ahead of time by teaching that gifts are not to be opened without the family there. Give your child a wrapped gift and a reward for keeping it intact.
- Practice unwrapping gifts, taking turns and waiting for others, and giving gifts. Role play scenarios with your child in preparation for him/her getting a gift they may not want
- Take toys and other gifts out of the box before wrapping them. It can be more fun and less frustrating if your child can open the gift and play with it immediately.
- When opening gifts as a family, try passing around an ornament to signal whose turn it is to open the next gift. This helps alleviate disorganization and the frustration of waiting.
- Prepare siblings and young relatives to share their new gifts with others.
- If necessary, consider giving your child a quiet space to play with their own gifts, away from the temptation of grabbing at other children’s toys
- Prepare family members for strategies to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents, and to enhance participation. Provide suggestions ahead of time that will make for a less stressful holiday season.
- Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or distress, including an increase in behavior such as humming or rocking - this may indicate it's time to take a break from the activity.
- Understand how much noise and other sensory input your child can manage. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may require.
- Try to relax and have a good time. Do everything possible to help reduce the stress level for your child and family during the holidays. If you are tense your child may sense that something is wrong. Don’t forget to prepare yourself! A calm and collected parent is better able to help their family enjoy this wonderful time of year.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).