Holidays typically are a time of great joy, sharing and spending time with family and friends. However, for those of us with family members who have special needs, the holidays can present unique challenges. What is perceived as joyous to most of us can often be overwhelming to someone with autism. Holidays cultivate many stressors that may cause a child to erupt: absence of routine, overstimulation, being away from home, and one important one that many of us may overlook – parents’ stress. Kids are very tuned into their parents mood and when they sense you are stressed, they can get extremely overwhelmed. They need you to stay grounded and when you aren’t, their behavior may show it.
Being sensitive to your child’s needs and keeping familiar routines in place are the best ways to avoid holiday havoc. Here are some helpful tips to help keep parents sane during the holidays.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.
Prepare your child for the social event: Explain to your child what is going to happen when there are changes in routines ahead of time. Be specific about every detail that might occur in any given situation. If part of your holiday itinerary includes airport travel, prepare your child for the crowds he might encounter and explain him about security procedures. Be sure to include the fact that he might be asked to remove his shoes, walk through a “funny machine” and that someone might look through his things. New or unexpected situations can be very frightening for a child with autism and being prepared can help him cope. It may be helpful to create a picture book that will show the sequence of events and prepare him for the sights, sounds and people he might encounter.
Prepare the social event for your child:
Avoid long trips whenever possible. Airports, planes and long car rides could be very stressful.
Stick to your normal routine as much as possible. Keep sleep and meal/snack times as close to their usual time as possible.
Bring your child’s favorite foods with you. Unfamiliar foods will leave your child starving, which is literally a recipe for disaster.
Bring your child’s favorite movie, video game system, sensory and security toys. Having familiar items will give him a sense of normalcy and comfort.
Pre arrange for a quiet space for your child to retreat to when stimulus gets too intense and he needs a break.
Don’t give in to social expectations (“People are looking at us”) or worry about insulting your host or family members if you don’t abide by social norms. You are your child’s advocate, not the world’s. This means you don’t need to force your child to hug, kiss, shake hands or play games with anyone if they don’t want to. Try to motivate him instead. This goes for clothing as well. Don’t force your child to wear something or comb his hair if he really doesn’t want to. You have to pick your battles. In general terms, don’t force your child to do anything unless it involves a safety concern or an emergency.
Educate your family ahead of time if you feel necessary. You can explain to them possible behaviors that might occur so that you don’t find yourself constantly apologizing for your child’s behavior.
Know the triggers and read the precursors of challenging behaviors, such as facial expressions, changes in breathing, body movements, etc. Look for the signs that your child may be unraveling and retreat to your safe place. Preventing a meltdown is always easier than managing a tantrum once it begins.
Finally, relax and enjoy. You are your child’s barometer and if you are stressed out, he will be too.