8 ways to make the holidays brighter for your child or loved one with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Holidays ASD.jpg

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone and we've given thanks for all of our blessings, many families will be preparing to celebrate the holiday season soon to be upon us. While the holidays are oftentimes a season for spending time with family and friends and spreading love, many families who have a child or loved one with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) struggle during this time of the year. While the holidays add extra stress, anxiety, and sometimes sadness and/or depression into the mix for the general population, having a child or family member with ASD can present extra challenges. Many families struggle with finding ways to make the holidays something to enjoy versus the anxiety they may experience due to difficult holidays past, or simply the anticipation of the holiday present. The good news is that there are a variety of behavioral methods for helping treat ASD, and with a few evidence-based guidelines you'll be on your way toward feeling all of the joy and gratitude the holidays bring rather than feelings of fear or dread.

Incorporate Storytelling

It may be difficult for a child with ASD to comprehend the significance of the holiday season. Storytelling can offer an impactful way to spread the message behind your traditional holiday celebrations to your child. One great way to do this is by creating your own personal story or “social story” describing the ways your family will be participating in celebrating the holidays this year. This is a great way to introduce anything that may arise for your loved one including emotions and situations, as well as solutions for how to deal with anything that arises—good or bad. The story should include any visitors to your home scenarios, as well as holiday parties and activities you'll be participating in. You should discuss every detail of these events in terms of the arrivals, typical interactions, potential situations, and any feelings that may arise from either having guests in your home or being a guest in someone else's home.

Avoid Drastic Changes

For a person is living with ASD, any drastic changes to the environment can cause feelings of being overwhelmed. It's best to gradually decorate your home with a few new items each day, and have your child or loved one participate in the decorating process. This will give him/her a feeling of ownership and allow for a smoother adjustment. The same process should be followed once the holidays are over. Gradually remove decorations and encourage participation. This will help with the overall transitions into and out of the holiday season.

Look for Sensory-Friendly Events

Going to the mall to buy presents or visit Santa Claus can be very overwhelming for someone with ASD. Look for special times in your area that offer sensory-friendly events that help children with ASD. Target offers quiet shopping times, and Autism Speaks partners with various shopping malls to offer sensory-friendly Santa visits.

Plan Ahead

It's always helpful to plan all holiday activities out well in advance, as well as any stories and other necessary preparations in order to sufficiently prep your loved one. This may include preparing special foods and snacks to bring with you to holiday gatherings, or offer your loved one when you're hosting a gathering. There may also be comforting items you can plan to have with you whether entertaining or visiting guests that will help you child or loved one to stay grounded and feeling at ease.  You'll also want to ensure there aren't any surprises for your special loved one this holiday. Prepare him/her for everything that's likely to occur. It's also a good idea to plan for little breaks when things become a bit intense. While it's not always possible to predict any surprises or unexpected events, you'll be doing all that you can on your end to ensure a happy holiday season.

Keep Safety in Mind

It's likely that the holidays are going to bring in a variety of distractions and opportunities for accidents or wandering. 50% of children with ASD will wonder from safety on any given day, so it's important to ensure that the appropriate safety measures are taken to ensure that everyone stays safe this holiday as the likelihood for opportunities to wander unnoticed are likely to increase this time of year. It may also be helpful to purchase an ID bracelet or tracking device for your child or loved one, and to alert neighbors, family, etc.

Set Rules

It's important to set rules for you child or loved one surrounding holiday traditions this year. You may need to set a rule for waiting to open presents until Christmas day, for example. The list of rules should focus on holiday traditions more than being a list of things not to do, or to avoid. This will help encourage a participatory holiday spirit in your child or loved one. Having these rules set out with pictures can be most helpful for you this time of year.

Be Aware of Sensory Overload Situations

It's likely that the external environments you cannot control for will be dramatically lit up with lights and decorations at an abrupt rate this season. There are also likely to be loud noises, music, and many people overall in homes and public places that can overwhelm your child or loved one. Being cognizant, and aware of your child during these times will help you allow him/her to adjust and take breaks when needed, remember the rules, and also communicate any feelings that come up with you during these times.

The holidays can be an extra struggle when you have a child or loved one who has ASD. It is possible to have an enjoyable time nonetheless, and there is help available should you decide that you'd like a bit of extra support. We'd love to hear from you if you're interested in ABA therapy or parent-child training to help manage symptoms of ASD and strengthen family bonds.

Jayna Nickert