Holiday tips for autism

Holiday tips FOR AUTISM: How to help your child with autism have a great holiday season

If you have a child with autism or on the autism spectrum, you already know that changes in his or her schedule can wreak havoc. And nothing says ‘holiday season’ like a ton of extra obligations, late nights, new events, and family chaos. So how can you have a merry holiday season while respecting the limits and needs of your child with autism?

Holiday tips for autism: here’s how to cope

Plan early:

Be like a boy scout a prepare, prepare, prepare. If you child becomes anxious when there are a lot of people around, talk for days in advance about relatives coming to visit or going to that crowded holiday parade. Use a calendar–maybe combined with a traditional advent calendar–to help your child picture what will happen and when. Role play the social situations that may come up.

Be deliberate about decorations:

You know your child. If changes in her environment can be triggering to her, look through photo albums of past years’ celebrations to remind her that a) the decorations are temporary, and b) that they are set out every year. Consistency in this matter will help. If particular types of holiday decorations will be difficult to your child, take him shopping with you and let him pick out what appeals to him. Maybe that flashing star isn’t for him, but the soft stockings will work great. When you’re finally in decorating mode, do so gradually. Maybe combine decorating the house with your child’s calendar, adding one decoration a day until the house is festive.

Set expectations about gifts:

Kids with autism can be obsessive, especially about subjects they find most interesting. If your child with autism has a particular gift in mind (which is very likely), set clear limits about how often he can mention the gift. Set up a token system to help make this concrete (he gets five tokens, for instance, and has to trade one in every time he wants to talk about his gift). And definitely nip all talk in the bud if you have no intention or ability to actually give this gift. Ensure that expectations are in line with reality. Be direct.

Have an exit plan:

Some events or activities will simply be too much. Or, they may be successful if you know when to leave! Don’t be afraid to call it quits if that holiday party, parade, Santa greeting, or family gathering just becomes too much. If you are hosting an event, ensure your child has a space set aside that is a safe space or calming space. Be prepared to lead your child to her calming space as soon as you can see her become anxious or overwhelmed. And if you’re away from home, agree on a cue with older kids that can signal that it’s time to leave.

Plan ahead for winter travel:

Consistency and comfort are key here: if you plan to travel for the holidays, you know you can expect a certain level of chaos and new surroundings. It’s more important than ever to have familiar items around your child. Have her favorite foods, toys, books, or comfort items with you, whether you’re flying or driving. Use social stories and role playing to practice what he can expect in airports, in queues, and in the car.

Honor your child:

Stand firm with relatives and other family members, setting expectations ahead of time. This may mean telling other kids (siblings) that the family may need to leave an event at X time, or it may mean planning ahead with your spouse, partner, or a helper to have one adult stay and one adult leave. Explain to relatives that you will be honoring your child’s needs over social obligations.

Practice gift giving and receiving:

You want your child with autism to be a gracious gift giver AND a gracious receiver of gifts, so you’ll need to practice the social manners of saying ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome’. You can create topic boards or vocabulary lists to help cue kids into the appropriate conversation pieces.

Empower family members:

Lastly, let family members and visiting relatives know what they can do to help. Let them know if your child with autism prefers to be hugged, for instance, or what foods she won’t eat. Let them be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. And mom and dad: try to relax and enjoy the magical holiday season!

Holiday tips for autism: how to help your child with autism have a wonderful holiday season.

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