Preparing for the Holidays with Autistic Children
Did everyone survive the Thanksgiving aftermath?! We did, although it was a struggle! Now Christmas will be here sooner than you think! Many parents will be worrying about how to survive the chaos and judgment that come with the festivities. It’s bad enough dealing with your crazy uncle, but it’s harder when preparing for the holidays with autistic children. We have to plan ahead, think of triggers, try to provide accommodations, and learn to take others’ opinions with a grain of salt. These tips should make for a merrier Christmas this year!
1) Know when to say “No”
Of course we want our children to be involved in family traditions and enjoy holiday cheer like everyone else, but we have to realize, as autism moms, there are times when we just have to opt out of certain activities.
If you know that your child is terrified of the inflatables at aunt Susie’s house, and a meltdown is inevitable, don’t take them there. Invite aunt Susie to your house, or ask around to see what other family gatherings she will be at, and make sure to spend quality time with her there instead. There are ways to avoid situations without avoiding people. (Then again, around the holidays, sometimes people are the problem!)
My children don’t want to get anywhere near a man dressed in a red suit, which is fine by me. We avoid malls and other obvious places where he may appear and try to get too close to kids. We have to be careful not to push our kids too much, and to know which activities to simply say “no” to.
Some children don’t do well with the long (and often loud) Christmas plays and musicals at churches. Sitting for long periods inside, and having to stay still and quiet, are recipes for sensory disaster. Try going to an outdoor walk-through manger scene if your child simply can’t stand to sit through this year’s Christmas special.
2) Plan ahead
Sometimes, meltdowns can be avoided if we just anticipate problems and try to come up with solutions in advance. If you know your child gets easily overwhelmed by crowds and excess noise at Christmas parties, pack headphones and an eye mask to take along. This will allow them to block out unwanted sounds, and take a break from all the visual stimulation when they need to.
You can also pack some small calming toys and tools. If you’re looking for ideas, check out this free list of 50 calming strategies!
We can dress our children for Antarctic weather sometimes during the winter months, and this can become a problem as well. Layer your child’s clothing, so they can shed a layer when they get overheated indoors. Planning little things like this in advance can make the Christmas festivities much more enjoyable.
3) Inform others
If other people know that your child struggles during the holidays, they may be more compassionate. On the other hand, they may not be…but it certainly doesn’t hurt to take that chance. Remind your extended family that your child is autistic (yes, people actually do forget these things if they don’t see your kids often), and briefly reiterate the specific issues that may arise.
“Thanks for the invite! We are looking forward to the Christmas party. I just wanted to remind you that we may need to step out early if Jack gets woo overwhelmed by the noise and lights.” A simple response like this can make the event go smoother for everyone.
If there is a meltdown or socially unacceptable stimming during a get-together, don’t be afraid to tell onlookers that your child is autistic. A lot of parents worry about how to handle this, but the best way is to just be honest. It may help educate others in the process. “Kelly is autistic, and she tends to spin in circles a lot when she is overstimulated like this. There is a lot going on at this party, and she isn’t used to that. Spinning is her way of trying to escape all of the other sensory input.”
4) Have an escape route
Once you arrive at the event location (whether it’s a loved one’s home, a church, or an arena), make a mental note of where the nearest exit is. It’s better to map out an escape route when all is calm. Hopefully you won’t need it! When you have done a quick run through in your mind, sit back and enjoy the festivities.
Check out this article for some helpful tips on how to handle autistic meltdowns when they do occur.
If all else fails, and your child is simply not having this holiday cheer, give yourself permission to leave. Forcing an autistic child to endure things that are truly overwhelming for them is only going to make it worse next time. We don’t “get used to” events that are completely overwhelming by forcing ourselves to withstand it. Recognize when your child has had enough, and don’t push them further. If you do, they may experience heightened anxiety next time they visit that place, or next time there is a similar event to attend.
Make Christmas memories that matter
Above all else, focus on your loved ones this Christmas, and make memories that you will cherish. You don’t have to pack your schedule with one event after another. Keeping it simple is really the best way to avoid stress while preparing for the holidays with autistic children. If you struggle to decline offers, try keeping the outings short.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that your previous dreams of Christmas are likely not going to become reality. Don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting perfection. Try to bring Christmas into your child’s world, instead of barraging them with typical celebrations. Enjoy the moment, and have yourselves a merry little Christmas!
P.S. Do your kiddos insist on taking the ornaments off the tree every night, and putting them back on..all in one clump?! Sigh…my 4 year old insists on clumping them by color each night! One of these nights I’ll learn my lesson and just leave it!