The holiday season is typically expected to be full of happy and joyful times. However, it can bring many challenges for children with autism as well as for their parents. There can certainly be positive experiences during the holidays for families that have a child with autism, but these families often experience more stress and difficulties than other families might.
Fortunately, some of the stress and challenges that a child with autism and their family might experience during this time can be prevented by being proactive. We’ll provide you with a few tips and strategies that can help you to help your child prepare for the holiday season. These tips will include ways you can prevent stress and behavioral problems and how to make the holiday season more enjoyable for your child and your whole family, as well.
The Holidays with Autism
Many people look forward to the holiday season with excitement and joy. They look forward to having fun, spending good quality time with friends and family, and enjoying many different activities and traditions throughout the season. However, for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the holiday season can be overwhelming, stressful, lead to anxiety, meltdowns, shutting down, or challenging behaviors of some sort.
Many children with autism thrive best when their daily routine is consistent. They are more comfortable when they know what to expect, when they know the people around them well, and when they have a predictable schedule. Many parents of children with ASD are well-aware of the challenges that might arise for their child when the child’s daily routine is interrupted, when something surprising happens, or when the child is expected to interact with new and unfamiliar people. The child might get overwhelmed or might have some sort of challenging behavior such as having a tantrum or crying or simply shutting down.
Despite the potential challenges, children with autism and their families can have a great time during the holiday season. Let’s get into some tips for helping make the holiday season more enjoyable for your child, for you, and for your family.
Tips to Help Your Child with ASD During the Holidays
There’s never one right way to help a child cope with stress or one right way to address challenging behaviors in a child. There’s no one right way to help a child learn the skills they need to help them live a happy and joyful life. However, there are some things parents can keep in mind when they are trying to help their child work on these types of things.
When it comes to preparing for the holidays, there are some general strategies you can consider. These are based on evidence-based strategies that have been found, in the field of behavior science, to be supportive of helping kids to learn new things that will support their independence, self-care skills, emotional regulation, and encourage positive and effective behaviors.
Using a Calendar
It can be helpful for children with autism to have a schedule. Parents can help their kids get through the holiday season more successfully if they use a calendar that identifies the events that will be happening. Using a calendar as a family and getting your child used to knowing what’s on the schedule can help a child cope with irregular events, things that happen occasionally as well as one-time events.
To help your child be better prepared for the holiday season, put the events - parties, holidays, shopping (if possible), and any other activities that you can plan related to the holidays - on the calendar as soon as you can. Review what’s happening on the calendar with your child on a regular basis.
However, be careful not to overwhelm your child. Sometimes children (and adults) can get overwhelmed when they think there is too much to do. Also, some children with ASD might have increased anxiety when they are thinking about an upcoming event that might make them uncomfortable. So, just be mindful of what is the best balance for your child when it comes to informing them about what to expect while considering how they’ll respond to this information.
Support Your Child’s Stress-Management Skills
As we mentioned, some children with autism can experience more stress or anxiety around the holidays. This might come from thinking about the upcoming activities or happen during the holiday events or it might spill over into their everyday life and might seem to “come out of nowhere.” Children with autism can benefit from learning various stress-management skills. These are some things you can work on throughout the year with your child, but you can put extra emphasis on this before and during the holidays. These skills will be something your child can use for years to come.
Of course, what works for one child might not work for another. Also, it’s necessary to consider your child’s needs and learning style when teaching stress-management techniques. Some examples of stress-management skills that might help your child prepare for and successfully get through the holidays include:
- Knowing how to get personal space when in a group of people if needed
- Deep breathing and relaxation techniques to use before and during social interactions
- Using preferred activities and independent play before a holiday activity to calm the mind and body or bringing preferred items/activities to an event to help reduce the discomfort of being at the event
Discuss What Your Child Can Expect
You can also help prepare your child for the holidays by having conversations with them about what they can expect. For instance, you can talk about who will be at the holiday dinner and what activities might occur there. You can let your child know if he is or is not allowed to bring and use an electronic device (like his phone or tablet) during the event or at what times during the event.
For children with autism who are non-speaking or unable to comprehend vocal communication or who struggle in this area to some degree, there are ways to improve their communication skills. Parents can provide pictures or even use social stories to help provide information about the specific event or activity that the child will be participating in. Creating a “book” that discusses who will be at the party, what activities might take place there, and any rules or expectations for the child’s behavior could also help. You might also include your child’s self-care and stress-management skills and any potential rewards you might offer your child for specific behaviors, such as staying at the dinner table for 20 minutes or for simply attending the event.
The idea is to provide your child with information about the upcoming event, so they are more prepared and less caught off-guard during the event.
Being Proactive with Your Child
To avoid challenging behaviors and to help prevent unnecessary stress for you and your child, use some proactive strategies to make the holidays more enjoyable for all. Being proactive in your approach to helping your child with autism get through the holidays more successfully involves thinking ahead at what might happen that you or your child would prefer not to have happen. It also involves identifying what you and your child would like to see happen throughout the holidays and putting things in place that will help those things to be more likely to occur.
On a side note, it is important to consider what your child would and would not like to happen during the holidays, but it’s okay to use an assertive parenting approach and make decisions that your child might not agree with. For instance, if you want your child to be off his electronic device for at least a small portion of the time during the family gathering or you’d like him or her to say hi to grandma, it is perfectly fine to set that expectation even if your child doesn’t love the idea.
Some proactive strategies that you can use to help your child successfully get through the holidays include:
- Creating a safe space in your home for your child to indulge in independent play when he needs some alone time during an event (if the event is taking place at your home)
- Planning a safe space or a way for your child to get some space away from the group (if the event is taking place at another location)
- Identifying the basic expectations for your child and communicating these to your child
- Asking or identifying what will make your child more comfortable during the holiday season
- Planning for and making sure your child gets enough sleep on a regular basis
- Being mindful of what your child will eat (this is particularly relevant for children who might be considered picky eaters)
Additional Things to Consider Helping Your Child with Autism Have a Good Holiday Season
Is there a way you can intentionally incorporate positive reinforcement into the holiday season to help support and encourage your child to display appropriate behaviors and meet expectations?
Consider how you can use your child’s preferred items or activities to help reinforce their appropriate behaviors. For instance, a child could earn tablet time by staying in the living room for thirty minutes during a family party.
What do You Really Think is Important for Your Child?
When considering what you expect for your child during the holiday season, be sure to really consider what you think is important for them and not just expect them to be like everyone else. For instance, is it important that they play with their cousins or is it okay that they sit by themselves and not engage in the social games that are going on?
What is Realistic?
Related to what you think is important for your child is to consider what is realistic for your child.
As we know, every child is different and unique in their own way. Is it realistic to expect your child to eat a meal in front of extended family or in a new location or is that too much for them? Do they feel too much anxiety eating in front of people they barely know? Or do they have a limited diet, and you have to bring food to the gathering that you know they’ll eat instead of expecting or trying to get them to eat food at the gathering?
Managing Parent Stress and Self-Care
Caring for a child on the autism spectrum can be overwhelming, especially during the holidays. Regardless of whether you, as a parent, decide to employ some of these strategies, you must check in with yourself regularly and engage in self-care on an ongoing basis. Here are some tips to help you manage the stress and support your own mental health during these demanding times.
Helping Your Child with Autism Prepare for the Holidays
There’s not one way to help a child with autism get ready for and get through the holiday season. However, these strategies and tips might help.
If you’d like further assistance at applying these strategies with your child or like more support with helping your child any time of year, contact Behavioral Innovations to see if ABA therapy is the right fit for your child.