Midday Fix: Helping parents of children with autism handle holiday challenges

Have Dreams
havedreams.org

Christopher Jones
Supervisor of Life Skills and Job Coaching

TIPS:

Shopping trip meltdowns

Holiday shopping in malls and stores can be stressful and over-stimulating for anyone, but it can especially be so for children with autism and sensory sensitivities. The noise, decorations and lights of holiday shopping can cause sensory overload, and an extreme negative reaction from a child with autism.

Admittedly many parents of children with autism can be unnerved by the staring and whispering of strangers to their child’s reactive behavior to holiday festivities and environments.

  • Preparation is key

Ensure that your child knows what to expect. It’s imperative that you need to plan the shopping trip ahead of time and make your child aware of it, so that they are not faced with sudden surprises.

Children with autism spectrum disorder tend to be visual learners, meaning they think in pictures and will therefore benefit from information that is presented visually.

During the holidays, establishing a visual schedule is especially helpful, to explain exactly what will be happening.

  • Talk about the holiday and what this means for your family

Discuss all the things that make the holidays different and special. Engage in activities to prepare your child for the holiday season such as read books about the holidays and looking at photos of your children taken at past holiday festivities.

  • Stay calm

Should your child be in the midst of a “meltdown’, stay calm and keep your voice gentle. Your child needs to see that you’re in control and you understand how upset they are. Your soothing voice and body language will help them trust you to sort things out for them.

Gifts and Decorations

Decorations around the house may be disruptive for some children with autism. Flashing lights and decorations can sometimes take some effort for them to manage. 

  • Explain changes early

Let your child know in advance. Be clear about what is going to change, when it is going to change, and for how long it will be different. Use visual aids to talk about it and write it down so they have a record to reference.

  • Involve your child in changes to the house

Let your child help pick out decorations. Allow them to see decorations and changes being made. Let them help decorate. Giving your child the opportunity to handle decorations, and letting them help decorate is a good way to cope with changes.

  • Consider decorating gradually

If your child has difficulty with change you may consider gradually decorating the house in stages, as opposed to suddenly overnight.

Visiting family and friends during the holidays

Many individuals with autism and their families do not extensively travel because they are concerned with the changes and disruptions to their child’s routines. Leaving the security of home for a new place can sometimes be off putting for individuals with autism. 

  • Talk to friends and family before visits

Explain what autism is, and what accommodations are needed and why. Tell them what your plan for the day or the visit is.

  • Give yourself plenty of time to travel to where you are going.

Allow plenty of time to get where you are going to avoid arriving to your destination stressed and flustered. Your anxiety will make your child stressed and flustered. If possible, include some transition time before joining an event. For example, allow yourself five minutes in the car once you’ve arrived.

  • Have a quiet room

If you’re hosting a holiday gathering have a quiet room that your child can retreat to if they should become overwhelmed. Whether at home or visiting, give your child the opportunity to escape when they need to.

  • Traveling tips

Using visual supports to show pictures of the whole traveling process will help them to understand the whole situation better. Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when driving or flying.

Pack your child’s favorite foods, books or toys for the trip. Having these items readily available can help to calm stressful situations.

Holiday Foods

Be mindful of holiday food. Special diets are common among children with autism, such as hypersensitivity to tastes; some foods can be offensive by smell, taste or even color.

  • Try holiday foods in advance

This will allow you to see what your child likes and doesn’t like, and avoid awkward moments at the dinner table.

If you’re planning to eat outside of your home, take your child’s favorite foods with you.

Attending sensitive-friendly holiday events

There are many holiday events around Chicago designed especially for autistic and sensory sensitive individuals, providing a more controlled and welcoming environment. Some of these include holiday sensory-friendly theater productions and “Sensitive Santa” events at various malls, which allow children with special needs a quiet and controlled environment to see Santa Claus.