4 tips for handling the holidays when your child has autism or sensory challenges

christmas with autism and spd

This article is adapted from the original first published in Growing Up in Santa Cruz.

Carols, cookies, skating, fancy outfits, Santa, shopping, family reunions, and holiday cheer. Despite the expected joy associated with all of this, the holidays are overwhelming enough to cause even the most level headed of us to dream of summer. Now imagine how overwhelming the holidays must be for your child with sensory challenges or autism.

As I mentioned in my article about handling Halloween when your child has sensory issues, a lot of the success that comes with holidays has to do with proper preparation. Without proper preparation, when leaving the normal routine behind, all of the sights, sounds, smells, and people can be a lot to take in. Don’t let the thought of a chaotic holiday keep you at home this year. The following tips will help you ease the pressure of the holidays so that it’s the family fun you hoped for.

1) Review Holiday Plans in Detail Before Hand and Practice Anything You Can

Sometimes the thought of a stressful event can be more stressful than the event itself. Once you know your holiday plans, go over them with your child in detail. Talk about everything from when you’ll be leaving the house to what you’ll be eating. Ask if your child has any questions and if there are any aspects of the plan that are causing anxiety. Do your best to put any nerves at ease and come up with solutions to any questions left unanswered. Leaving as little up to imagination as possible will go a long way in preparing your child for the event to come.

Once your child has a good understanding of what’s going to be happening over the holidays, practice as many of the elements as possible. Is your child going to be taken aback by being served roast chicken for dinner instead of his favorite turkey and cheese sandwich? Is the green bean casserole going to be a shock in comparison to the green peas that are normally on the plate? If you can figure out the Christmas dinner menu ahead of time, try incorporating elements of it into your child’s diet prior to the big day. Ideally, you’d want to be doing this months before Christmas with your occupational therapist, but even a few weeks is enough time to introduce him to certain foods.

I was one of the lucky kids who wasn't terrified of Santa, but most kids with any sense of stranger danger and strange old men are.

In addition to new foods, be sure to familiarize your child with new places prior to visiting them during the chaos of the holidays. Try going to your family’s favorite mall to do your Christmas shopping or buy the food for Christmas dinner at the local store you frequent regularly. If you want your child to take a picture with Santa, let your child watch him from a distance a few days prior. If you’re planning on going to the local tree lighting, visit the spot beforehand and let your child ask questions about the event.

Think ahead about as many events and family plans that will be happening during the holidays and mentally and physically prepare your child for them. Both of these elements are very important. Simply telling your child about an event or a new type of food doesn’t take the place of experiencing it firsthand. Doing both mental and physical preparation prior to the holidays will make a big difference in how smoothly they go.

2) let your child wear something comfortable

While a suit and tie or a frilly dress sound appropriate for a fancy holiday event, putting your child in an uncomfortable outfit will only exacerbate his or her frustrations. Find a cute jumper that your child likes, or invest in seamless shirts and pants that look festive. Even if your child isn’t the fanciest person at the party, being comfortable will help prevent meltdowns stemming from an uncomfortable holiday outfit that turns out to bring anything but holiday cheer.

If there’s an important reason why your child needs to wear a specific outfit, buy it a few weeks early and familiarize her with it. Does your family have a tradition of wearing matching pajamas or slippers? Is your mother-in-law expecting your son to wear a certain sweater? For any wardrobe choices that are out of your control, let your child become comfortable with them as soon as possible. That being said, control everything that you can control. If your child absolutely needs to wear a suit and tie for the family photo, let him wear his favorite pair of socks. If your child needs to wear a scratchy dress because her grandma gave it to her, let her wear her favorite leggings underneath it. In essence, control what you can control and familiarize your child with everything that you can’t.

If you're ditching the fancy clothes and looking for some fun matching PJs or holiday onesie's, here are some of my favorites! Click on the pics to use the affiliate link leading you to Amazon.

3) embrace traditions

If your child struggles with changes to his or her routine, do your best to establish holiday traditions. The comfort of doing the same thing every year will allow your child to mentally prepare for the holidays all year long. It will also allow you to focus on past problem areas so that you can rectify them before the holidays come around again. Was Christmas caroling overwhelming last year? Focus on getting your child used to musical events throughout the year. Did sitting still at the family dinner last New Year’s Eve turn into a meltdown? Practice having formal meals leading up to the next holiday gathering.

Throughout the year, talk with your child about past holiday memories and get excited about the year to come. Creating positivity and comfort around holiday family traditions will make each passing year easier and easier. It’s also a good idea to involve your child in the creation of new family traditions. Doing this will help your child craft traditions that he is comfortable with. Also, having this sense of agency will give your child the confidence to explore new experiences and feel a part of the holidays. In general, children can feel like the holidays are controlled by adults and that they have little say in what happens. This can exacerbate issues for your child with autism or sensory issues, as the environment feels chaotic and unpredictable. Giving your child some decision making power can go a long way in creating a sense of ease surrounding the holidays.

4) have a time out signal

No matter how prepared you are for the holidays, when your child is prone to sensory overload and becoming overwhelmed, there’s bound to be moments when she needs to step aside and take a moment to calm down. It’s important that the need for these calm down moments are honored so that overwhelming events don’t end in meltdowns. Putting the holidays aside, it’s a huge accomplishment for your child to recognize the feelings of being overwhelmed and be able to tell you that she needs to step aside to calm down. This type of emotional labeling is very complex, so don’t be concerned if your child isn’t there yet. This is a skill to constantly work on with your occupational therapist and, until you get there, become adept at recognizing the signs of potential meltdown yourself so that you can encourage your child to take a time out.

Determine a signal that your child can use to alert you to the need for some time away from a holiday event. This is also a signal that you can use to alert your child to the need for a time out if your child struggles to recognize the feelings of being overwhelmed. When you see the signal, or you give the signal, do everything in your power to find a space for your child to be alone and calm down. Allowing for time outs will let your child have more emotional control and provide him with a good chance to practice emotional regulation. This will also ease anticipation of any upcoming holiday events, as your child will know that there’s room for quiet moments within the loud holiday merriment.

When your child has autism or sensory issues, the holidays can seem like something you’d rather skip. But, with proper planning and forethought, the holidays can be filled with the stereotypical cheer and merriment that the movies talk about. It’s a lot of work, but turning a holiday season full of meltdowns into a holiday season full of fun memories is always worth it. Do you have any tips or tricks that I missed? Leave them in the comments below so that we can help each other have the best holidays possible!

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About the Author

Diana Fitts is an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders.