Holidays can be tough for autistic people. They may also be tough for their parents, guardians, and loved ones. But the good news is that for every likely problem you might encounter, there are real-world solutions you can put in place to make the season bright!
Many autistic people have strong negative reactions to bright lights, loud noises, strong flavors and smells.1 The holidays can sometimes feel like a sensory assault! When you're facing the probability of a sensory meltdown, here are some strategies to try:
Avoid the sensory challenges. Do you really need to take your child shopping with you, or could you possibly shop online, find a sitter, or ask someone else to pick up some items for you? These days, internet options are just as good as in-person shopping; you can even get the grocery store to deliver.
Choose sensory-friendly options. While flashing lights on a Christmas tree might overwhelm an autistic child, gently changing lights might charm or soothe them. Luckily, modern LED Christmas lights offer multiple ways to enjoy the twinkling. You can also, in many cities, find "sensory friendly" Santas, shops, and other holidays offerings. If these aren't available in your hometown, consider having a small, low-key "visit from Santa" in your own home.
Have a plan B in case of sensory overload. Some children can handle crowds and noise, but only for a limited amount of time. Make sure to pack noise-cancelling earmuffs or headphones, sunglasses or an eye mask, and stim toys. If you decide to go a big holiday event, be sure to have a "plan B" in case it turns out to be too much for them. If it's just the two or three of you, you can simply leave. If other siblings or friends are coming along, know in advance which adult will take the autistic child out of the difficult situation while others can stay and enjoy the experience. To avoid this, it is best to plan events in ways that limit the chances of sensory overload occurring. If the holiday celebration is held in your home, allow your child to retreat to their room or a playspace when they need a break. To make it more festive, ask if they want to decorate that space in advance. It's important to remember that their sensory capacity is simply lower than yours; they aren't trying to "ruin" the family celebration.
Need for Routine and Predictability
Most autistic kids thrive in situations that are consistent and predictable.
The holidays, of course, are precisely the opposite. Many families welcome new people, new sounds, new smells, new things in the house, and major changes to routines of eating, sleeping, and playing. How can you help an autistic child enjoy these special annual experiences?
Pick and choose. Most autistic people can handle some change to their routines, but very few can flexibly handle complete disruption. Knowing the child in your care as you do, you can pick and choose the kinds of changes they can handle most easily. For example, you may decide to put up a tree but stay at home at Christmas, or travel for Christmas but pack along a child's favorite toys and videos and stick to their usual schedule.
Practice. If you're heading for a special event or experience, plan and practice behaviors ahead of time so the child in your care is ready to handle something new. For example, if you're going to a religious space, take the child in your care to the decorated space at a quiet time. Talk with the religious leader or staff about songs or prayers to expect. How will the service be the same as or different from other services? If there's an order of service, share it and walk through it with your child. And, as always, have a Plan B just in case they can't make it through the entire service.
Say "no thanks" when necessary. You're invited to a holiday party and the "whole family" is asked to come. It'll be crowded and loud, and it will keep your child up past bedtime. In cases like this, the best option is usually to just say no (or to hire a sitter if that's a practical option).
Coping With Extended Family
Holidays are especially tough with extended family. That's because every family has traditions and expectations, and families may struggle to understand the needs of an autistic child. A family member may feel hurt that the child in your care doesn't like their cranberry sauce, while another can't figure out why they don't want to watch the football game. A different family member may be angry because the child in your care won't play with their cousins, while another is sure the child in your care just needs a little "tough love." How can you cope with so many challenges and expectations, all at the same time?
Pre-plan and stick to your guns. You already know which traditions are going to create problems, and you probably have a good idea about how your autistic kid will react to each one. Knowing all this, you can make a plan ahead of time and share it with family. The key, of course, is that you'll have to stick to your plan even when family members would rather you didn't. For example, you may need to say "we'll be delighted to open Christmas presents with you in the morning, but then we need downtime until dinner." You may even need to firmly tell family members that you will stay in a hotel rather than joining cousins at a family member's house for the weekend.
Bring your own necessities. If you're leaving home for the holidays, don't assume that anyone else will have what the child in your care needs to maintain their equilibrium. Bring along a DVD player and videos. Pack their favorite foods, blankets, pillow, stim toys, and other paraphernalia.
Explain their needs. Before any family members have a chance to get hurt feelings, be sure they understand that, for example, the child in your care is dairy-intolerant, or won't eat new foods, or will love a Christmas present provided it's exactly the toy they're expecting and nothing else. Help extended family by giving them some hints and tips about how best to reach out to and include the child in your care (and you) by modifying expectations, choosing specific foods, or turning on particular TV shows. Explain that your child doesn't mean to be rude or disrespectful, and that their bluntness or silence is their attempt at taking care of themself.
Help your family to help you. Most families want to do all they can to make you all feel welcome, but they need to know what's helpful. Help them to help you! Let family members know which Christmas presents would be most welcome, which kinds of games and activities the child in your care enjoys, and the favorite foods of the child in your care. If it's appropriate in your family, you can also ask to share caretaking responsibilities so that you, too, can enjoy time with relatives.
Have an escape route. Both you and your child need to know what will happen if you get too much of family fun. What will you tell your family, and where will you go to get away? Is there a quiet room available? If not, can you head home or to a hotel room?
More Holiday Tips
Here are a few more ideas for maintaining a calm, happy, and accessible holiday.
Keep it simple. You have enough on your plate without having to become Martha Stewart too! Put up a tree, wrap some presents, and stick a turkey in the oven. You're done!
Establish your own traditions. Autistic kids love traditions, and so does everyone else. Try creating your own family traditions that are easy and fun for everyone, including your autistic child.
Change your expectations. Sure, Christmas can be a time when family and friends get together for a loud celebration. But it can also be a time of quiet contemplation, or mellow family afternoons, or even an evening in front of the TV watching favorite movies.
Take care of your other kids too. If your autistic child has siblings, be sure they don't get pushed aside as you take care of your autistic child. If there are traditions or experiences they love, they should get the chance to enjoy them. That may mean a little juggling and hard work, but your children will thank you!
Take care of yourself. It's easy to get so busy with your child's needs that you forget your own. But, of course, their experience will depend a great deal on your own feelings of calm and seasonal joy. That means you, too, need a chance to experience your favorite holiday events, movies, and food. Call on the help of friends and family, if you need to, but be sure you get that special shot of holiday cheer that makes the season joyful!