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Preparing your child with autism for holiday celebrations and family get-togethers

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Thanksgiving Holiday

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No matter what holiday your family celebrates — Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas — the holidays bring changes to everyone’s schedules. These changes may be difficult for children with autism, especially those who struggle with transitions and new routines. 

As a parent, there are several things you can do to help your child with autism adjust to these changes. 

  • First, begin by having an early conversation with your child before the holidays commence. For example, if eating or sleeping routines will change (e.g., dinners in the dining room versus the kitchen, sleeping in a different bed or in a different house), start talking to your child a few days in advance about how these changes will impact their daily routines. 
  • Create a visual schedule or social story to help explain these changes so that your child can anticipate what is next. Our pediatric psychology team created a social story for visiting the Autism Program at Texas Children’s Hospital that can be used as an example. Knowing about these changes in advance can help your child feel more comfortable adapting to new experiences.  
  • Decorate your home in stages for the holidays. Celebrations often involve novel sensory experiences, such as decorations and the smell of unfamiliar foods. Though this can be an exciting time for your family, some children with autism may respond in an unexpected way to changes in their environment or routines. So, decorating in stages can be a good idea.
  • Prepare your child for the upcoming holidays by reading books about your family’s celebrations, reading a social story or showing pictures of potential holiday decorations to your child. You also can bring your own decorations out of storage and let your child see and explore the decorations (if safe to do so) before putting them up around the home. From there, you can create a visual checklist or calendar that lets your child visually know which days you will decorate and what items/parts of the decoration process will be completed on given days. 

Some children with autism have strong interests, such as animals, vehicles, and letters and numbers, which can be incorporated into decorations, gifts, and new or unfamiliar situations they may encounter during the holidays. Incorporating your child’s interests may not only increase their desire to participate in holiday activities, but help them feel more comfortable and at ease with less familiar and potentially over-stimulating situations. Not all individuals with autism have focused interests, but nevertheless, they may have preferences for particular toys, activities and foods. To the degree possible, allow your child access to familiar toys and foods in new situations and places. It is important to remember we all feel more comfortable in situations where familiar and stable elements are present. At a family gathering or religious service, consider allowing your child to bring one or two of his or her favorite toys or specific comfort items, snacks and more substantial food items that your child prefers. It also is a good idea to incorporate familiar activities into new situations, as this also can be beneficial. 

Practice family traditions ahead of time. This can involve practicing typical interactions that happen during celebrations using your child’s preferred communication style, which might be spoken language, sign language, pictures, gestures, speech generating devices or even a combination of these. It might involve using a social story that describes your family’s schedule for holiday events as well as specific traditions. Examples of social stories can be found here, here, and here. Read this social story regularly as a reminder to your child, and practice holiday traditions with your immediate family prior to the event. 

Caregivers often do a lot to prepare themselves and their children for the holidays. However, one thing caregivers often forget about is preparing other family members. Often times, even during holidays, family members want to help, but are not always sure how to do that. Caregivers should inform family members of their child’s communication style. They should discuss their child’s preferences and interests so family members know how to easily engage your child and put them at ease. Knowing things that may be potentially upsetting for your child, such as noisy environments or large crowds, also will be helpful so family members know what to avoid. You also may want to inform your family of behaviors your child may exhibit and how they should respond when these behaviors occur. Families can proactively set up a calm and quiet space at their family member’s home that can be used as a designated safe space for your child if the environment becomes too overwhelming or over-stimulating. 

As much as caregivers prepare, there are likely to be unexpected things that occur during holiday gatherings and events that may trigger feelings of overstimulation, stress, or discomfort in children with autism (such as loud music and bright flashing lights). Keep in mind that this is a natural occurrence and not suggestive of a failure to prepare. When the unexpected happens, reach into your toolkit of everyday strategies that help to calm your child. Strategies like applying deep pressure and calming touch, deep breathing, and breaks to engage in preferred activities (e.g., tablet time). If stepping away is needed, have an already identified family member who is prepared to step aside to help your child calm down.

The holidays can be a joyous time, filled with family and friends, music, colorful decorations, special meals, fun activities and gifts. Even when your expectations don’t match up with the “perfect” holiday celebrations we see on TV and social media, the most important thing to do is stop… take a deep breath (or two or three), and let go of the expectations you have for your child and for yourself. Put yourself in your child’s shoes for a moment, and think about all the things we know are difficult for children with autism — changes in routine, lots of sensory input, crowded gatherings — and realize the holidays can be a tough time for a child on the spectrum. When the emotions and tension escalate, try to stay focused on your needs and your child’s needs. Above all, be kind to yourself and your child. Try to remember that your Facebook friends and Instagram influencers are not posting pictures of their failed crafts projects, overcooked dinners or their own family meltdowns and arguments. The image of a “perfect” holiday eludes most of us, and our challenge is to find the parts of the holiday that work for all family members (including children with autism) and let go of the parts that cause stress and disappointment.

 Click here to learn more about Texas Children’s Autism Program. Happy holidays everyone!