Helping Autistic Kids Have a Great Holiday Season

It’s the holidays, and if you think you’re stressed out with all the extra activity, imagine how the autistic kids in your life are feeling!  All kids, NT or otherwise, go a little crazy this time of year, what with toys and parties and all the special things that go on.  Here are some tips to help you and your autistic kids have a great holiday season.

Specific Autistic Struggles

The holiday season brings some specific problems for autistic kids.  Routines are disrupted all to hell at school and at home, which threatens an autistic child’s sense of stability.  There are crowds everywhere and extra socializing – even family gatherings can be overwhelming.  There’s the chance of food issues at all those parties and big family meals, and the attendant smells, noise, and music overload. 

On top of all that, autistic kids may get ideas about how the holiday events “should” go – whether form TV, movies, or other kids – and they don’t always handle it well when things don’t turn out the way they had in mind.

Help Kids Cope with Changes in Routine

The first way to help autistic kids manage holiday stress is to maintain as much routine and normality as possible.  Routine keeps us feeling stable and grounded, and it will help offset the changes that come with the season.  When you do have a disruption – say, Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, a Christmas party at Aunt Muriel’s, etc. – talk it through with your autistic child as much as possible.  Go into detail: “We’re going to Grandma’s, your cousins will be there, and Aunt Jean and Uncle Robert, there will be turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce” – I mean DETAIL.  The more your child knows what to expect, the better they’ll be able to cope with everything that’s going on around them. 

Have Your Kid’s Back

Your kid will depend on you to run interference for them at parties and big family gatherings.  It’s your job to make sure that they have everything they need to handle the stress well.  If your child has food issues, assure them that they won’t have to eat anything they don’t like.  Bring food for them if necessary and don’t let anyone pressure them into eating Cousin Bertha’s casserole “just to be nice”.

Make sure that autistic kids have a quiet place they can go in the midst of a party to decompress and get away from the overstimulation.  This might be a bedroom away from the main gathering or something similar, just so long as it’s quiet and not full of people.  Bring ear defenders or sunglasses as necessary, and have their favorite stims or fidget toys on hand so they can regulate themselves as they need to. And avoid unnecessary stress for everyone by making sure that they’re wearing comfortable clothes without bothersome tags or seams. 

Lastly – and this goes for all kids – don’t let anyone force physical affection on your child.  Many autistic people have issues with being touched, especially being touched by people they’re not comfortable with, and just because someone is “family” doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.  How comfortable are you with people you see once a year, at most?  They’re practically strangers.  Remember that just being around so many people is stressful for your autistic child, so they’ll be even more sensitive about touch.  Talk about it with your child beforehand and see if they’re ok with waving at people they don’t know, or maybe giving high fives to some people.  Let them know they you won’t force them to do anything they’re uncomfortable with and enforce those boundaries with all the other adults who might think it’s fine to grab or tickle a kid without warning. 

Create Sensory-Friendly Traditions

Find ways to celebrate the season that won’t overwhelm your autistic child and make those your family traditions.  Some places now do low-sensory Santa visits, so if your child can handle Santa, that might be an idea.  Baking cookies or other treats can be a good activity.  If cookie dough or the like are Badfeels for your kid, maybe decorating pre-baked cookies is a better choice.  Perhaps a carol singalong at home might be fun, or a small chapel carol service.  If your child likes visual stims, driving around to see Christmas lights can be great for everyone (a flask of hot apple cider or hot cocoa can make it even better)!  In fact, staying in the car might be preferable to going to a lighted park or festival – no crowds to deal with, it keeps some distance between the child and the stimulation, and when they get tired, you can just drive home at once.

Remember:

  • Make sure autistic children know exactly what to expect in as much detail as possible.
  • Give them ways to be safe from overload and overstimulation at parties and family gatherings.
  • Enforce their boundaries.
  • Find ways to celebrate that don’t overwhelm them.
  • Maintain as much normality as possible.

As with all things involving autistic kids, making sure they have a great holiday season is just a matter of a little planning and forethought.  Keep them as stable as possible amidst all the chaos of the season and they’ll cope with the stress much better. 

Helping Autistic Kids Have a Great Holiday Season

What is the most overwhelming part of the holiday season for you?  Do you have that one relative who just insists on being affectionate when you don’t want it – how do you deal with it?  What are your best tips for sensory-friendly holiday traditions? 

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