Updated: Dec 18, 2019
With the holiday season right around the corner, the anticipation of spending time with loved ones and receiving and giving gifts is on everyone’s mind. However, the families of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may have more than just the joys of holiday activities to think about.
Sitting still during long plane and car rides while on the way to sleep in the unfamiliar houses of relatives who give painful hugs and kisses probably isn't considered fun for a person with ASD. In addition, family members might misinterpret a non-verbal child’s lack of responses or eye contact as misbehaving.
Individuals on the spectrum can also have certain food sensitivities which are especially challenging to accommodate during Thanksgiving and other big holiday meals. Many individuals with autism are picky eaters or have special diets that are hard to maintain when you’re not the one hosting dinner.
For all of these reasons, preparation, planning, managing expectations, and information sharing are the key to a successful holiday season because they will ensure that you can focus on the true meaning of the holidays.
Tips for a successful holiday season
To most, decorating the house is a fun way to make the joy of the holiday season tangible, but individuals with autism may find this change disruptive. Decorating gradually can help individuals on the spectrum adjust to this visual transition. It may be helpful to include children in decorating the house or even take children shopping for the decorations so they are engaged in the process.
Parents can create a visual schedule indicating which decorations will be put up each day, or show their child pictures of their house from past holidays to prepare them for the change. Try to choose sensory-friendly decorations such as lights that don’t twinkle as they can avoid overstimulation. Also make sure to establish rules about touching the decorations because the colorful and shiny new items might be alluring for a sensory-seeking child.
When it comes to traveling, pack comfort items that will keep children calm and engaged such as music, toys, books, games or snacks. Downloading a child’s favorite movie on an iPad can be a good long-term distraction. Dressing your child in comfortable clothing and headphones may also make the trip easier to bear.
If you’re traveling by plane, consider writing a social story explaining airport, boarding and flying procedures. Watching videos online or roleplaying may be helpful so that children know what is expected of them during travel. A growing number of airlines, such as American Airlines and Jet Blue, are offering mock travel experiences which can help a child with autism get accustomed to the airport procedures such as going through security and boarding the plane before the actual trip. Asking for priority boarding might also be helpful so your child can adjust slowly to people coming on board.
For Thanksgiving and other big meals, remind family members about your child’s special diet or food sensitivities. You can also bring your child one of their favorite meals in a container as such a stressful time may not be the best to introduce new foods. Eating ahead of time is also a good option.
Individuals with autism also have a tendency to get over-excited and gorge on food, especially with so many delicious options, but there are several ways to prevent this. When it comes to appetizers, if moving them out of sight isn’t an option, consider placing them in bowls with covers or lids.
When it comes to the main course, try plating food instead of using self-serving platters. This can help a child slow their eating, control portions and avoids grabbing. Seconds can always be served. If this isn’t possible, sit your child next to you or someone who can encourage table manners. If you think your child might have problems sitting at the table throughout the entire dinner, have backup options available.
As for shopping for gifts, many stores offer quiet shopping hours at specific locations to help families with children with autism avoid their normal high-stimulation environments. Online shopping is also a great option to consider. If you must bring your child to a store, remember to bring tools like noise-cancelling headphones or a toy to keep them calm and distracted. Children might obsess over a certain gift they want, so try making rules about the number of times they can mention it.
For parents who want their child to have the experience of sitting on Santa’s lap but are worried about it being too overwhelming for them, Autism Speaks has the perfect sensory-friendly solution. Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs team up to bring Santas who are trained to support people with autism and special needs to specific malls all over the country. Families also have the opportunity to shop for presents after meeting Santa and before the crowds arrive. A list of locations can be found here.
There are also a lot of great strategies to use when opening presents. “We have a special arrangement with Santa that he comes on the night of the 23rd. That way there’s time to play with presents before going to activities on Christmas Day” says one mom. It may be helpful to assign a child to a structured task, such as handing out the presents. Allowing a child to open an anticipated or enticing gift first might also keep them engaged.
Practice opening gifts, waiting patiently when others open theirs and giving gifts. It also may be a good idea to prepare them for receiving a gift they do not want to avoid awkwardness with family members. Creating a wish list can solve many of these issues. If you perform a blessing before opening a present on Hanukkah, Gateways has some great resources to help teach and explain the holiday traditions to children with autism.
When it comes to relatives, it may be helpful to prepare a photo album with pictures of them and other guests to show to individuals with ASD so they can get familiar with the faces they will be around during the holidays. Giving a short description of each person can help familiarize them as well.
If you’re spending the holidays at another family member’s home, make sure to tell them of any aversions your child might have to decorations or other sensory input. Ask for a quiet room where your child can go to decompress if being around people gets too much for them. Explaining your child’s hugging preferences, how best to interact with them, or what to do if they get upset can avoid anxiety on both ends and increase participation. It's also important to let them know that if they act unpredictably, they’re not misbehaving, just learning to adapt to a new or difficult situation.
Lastly, if you plan to attend a religious service, try exposing your child to the environment before going and practice routines like sitting still on benches, singing songs or kneeling and praying. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism suggests providing children with a picture or written schedule of the program so your child can check off each event when it’s finished. Since they might be sitting still for a long period of time, bring fidgets or other non-disruptive toys for entertainment.
Remember, flexibility is key. Don’t force your child to attend every event, sit through every meal or wear clothes that are uncomfortable for them. Bring your own necessities and try to maintain as much of your child's schedule as possible. Practice and prepare them for any trips, outings and parties and always have a plan B in case things get too much for them. Most importantly, don’t let expectations ruin such a wonderful time. Children with autism can become enthusiastic participants of the holidays as the changes of the season become predictable themselves over the years.
SNACK* wishes you a safe and happy holiday season!