It is time again for our annual holiday tips. Last year, COVID presented some extraordinary challenges. While COVID is still an issue in most communities, we hope many regular traditions can resume. And we hope these suggestions and materials will help lessen the stress and anxiety created by the holiday season and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. Visit our website at https://go.iu.edu/4aaR for examples of visual supports created by Amy Gaffney that may help facilitate a joyful holiday season.
- The impact of COVID may still be felt in various ways as we prepare for the holiday season. For example, with the supply chain shortage, it may be more difficult to purchase specific presents. You and your child should make a list of what he or she wants for the holiday. As you make the list, make sure you identify “back up” gifts in case the one your child wants is unavailable. Promoting flexibility will be important. Be careful in promising your child that they will receive specific gifts.
- If your child begins to obsess about a particular gift or toy they want, it may help to be specific and direct about the number of times a child can mention the toy. One suggestion is to give your child 5 poker chips. They can exchange one poker chip for 5 minutes of talking about the desired gift. Also, if you have no intention of purchasing a specific toy, it serves no purpose to tell the child that maybe they will get the gift. This will only lead to problems in the future. Always be clear and concrete about your intentions.
- If you are traveling for the holidays, there continue to be new regulations and expectations, especially if you are flying. Prepare your child for mask wearing, and that movement may be restricted. Make sure you have the child’s favorite foods, books, or toys available. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Also prepare them via social stories or other communication systems for any unexpected delays in travel.
- Since holidays may place extra stress on a child, this may not be the time to introduce them to new demands, new foods, and new expectations. Your son or daughter may need the comfort of their routines. For example, try to maintain sleep, meal, and other important routines.
- If celebrating in person, it may also be helpful to prepare family members and others for strategies to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents and to enhance participation. Help them understand that your son/daughter needs calm discussions or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother holiday season. If your child becomes upset, it might also be helpful to coach others to remain calm and neutral to minimize behavioral outbursts.
- Teach your child how to leave a situation and/or how to access support when an event becomes overwhelming. For example, if you are having visitors, have a safe/calm space set aside for the individual with their favorite items/toys available. The individual should be taught ahead of time that they should go to their space when feeling overwhelmed. Practice this strategy often throughout the year and when the individual is calm. Promoting emotional regulation will serve the individual into adulthood. For children who are not at that level of self-management or emotional regulation, develop a signal or cue for them to show when they are getting anxious and prompt them to use fidgets or a safe space. For children with more significant challenges, practice using this space in a calm manner at various times prior to your guest’s arrival. Take the child into the room and engage them in calming activities (e.g., play soft music, rub his/her back, turn down the lights, etc.). Then when you notice the child becoming anxious, calmly remove him/her from the anxiety-provoking setting immediately and take him/her into the calming environment. Do not wait until the behavior escalates. Make sure others respect your child’s need for space and do not intrude.
- In preparation for the family holiday event, rehearse conversation topics in advance with your son/daughter. Develop a signal to help them understand when they should shift topics. Make a list of acceptable topics and a list of those they should not discuss. Practice this list in advance. Equally important is to prompt family members about topics of discussion that they can engage your son/daughter in and those they should avoid.
- We hope that many traditional family events will happen this year. However, they may happen in a different way. Regardless, we know that preparation is crucial for most individuals. At the same time, it is important to determine how much preparation a specific person may need. For example, if your son or daughter tends to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her. Here are some areas where your child may need preparation:
- Where and How Christmas Dinner Will Occur
- Who Will Be Present at Christmas this Year
- How Family Will Meet Virtually This Year
- Where the Family May or May Not Be Going This Year.
9. Parties are frequent during the holiday season and involve many social (and unwritten) rules. As such, it may be important for adults with an ASD to review social etiquette when invited to another person’s home. For instance, perhaps he or she will need to check to see if they should remove their shoes at the door, or if they need to bring an appetizer, dessert, or any other small gift for the hostess. If the party is at work, some conversational topics might be off limits, and the expected dress code may be more formal. Therefore, it may also be beneficial to review what is appropriate for discussion or attire across different social settings.
10. Above all, know your child. Know how much noise and other sensory input they can take. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. Know their fears and know those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them.
Most important, we hope that you remain healthy and do not get unduly stressed. Your son/daughter may likely react to that stress. And most of all have a wonderful, safe, and healthy holiday season!
- Contributed by Indiana Resource Center for Autism Staff (2022). Making the most of the holidays for your family and your son/daughter on the autism spectrum. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/making-the-most-of-the-holidays-for-your-family-and-your-son-daughter.html