Christmas is often filled with stress. There is a lot of pressure to make Christmas perfect and fun, and to enjoy yourself while you're doing it. This is a tall order in any situation, but when you add to that the stress of having a child with special needs for whom you also want the holidays to be perfect and fun – it can often become more overwhelming than ever.
Here are 10 tips to help you have a stress-free Christmas with your Aspergers or high-functioning autistic child:
1. Kids on the autism spectrum will always do better when they are not over-stimulated by the many sights, sounds, smells, and unpredictable events of the outside world. You can create an experience in your home that you normally would go out for. For example, instead of going to an evening parade with a festival of lights, you can put Christmas lights all around your house, turn off all the lights, and play Christmas music at a gentle volume. You may be concerned about depriving your youngster of a fun holiday experience, but keep in mind that when your youngster can’t digest the experience, he’s not having the fun experience you want. That’s why, if you can create a digestible version of the experience at home, your youngster can take in and enjoy the experience. By doing this, you are actually giving him more, not less.
2. Focus on a few things you know are important to make sure you have prepared around this time. Of course, some things may need modification so that it is possible to enjoy them with your youngster. For example, if there is a danger of them hurting themselves on fragile decorations, you may have to put them higher up and out of reach, or get new ones that are not so fragile. Some special foods may not be served. These modifications often bring some disappointment, but if the goal is a nice family holiday, it's important and we can adjust.
3. Holiday decorations inside the house – including bright and blinking lights, wreaths, trees, candles and stacks of presents – could be areas of concern. Parents know best what their Aspergers youngster enjoys and at what point things may become overwhelming. However, parents should not expect higher tolerance simply because it is the holiday season.
4. Holiday shopping with an Aspergers youngster may present its own set of challenges, especially when the stores are crowded and noisy. Make a list that identifies the items you’re shopping for, and do not roam the stores trying to decide what to buy. Keeping the trip short and being organized will help minimize the potential for your youngster to become overwhelmed and have a “meltdown” in the middle of a store.
5. If you are visiting family with your child, send them an email ahead of time to explain what they can do to make the visit comfortable for you and your Aspie. Explain why a group of talkative family members asking your child a bunch of questions might be problematic, or tell everyone the answer your youngster likes to hear when he asks over and over, “How fast does your car go?” Also, designate in advance a calm room or space where he can go to decompress once he begins to be overwhelmed by all of the commotion and sensory input that comprise most celebrations. Every so often, take the youngster to this room and spend some time alone with him.
6. Make the demands on yourself realistic and don't try to do so much that you feel only frustration. Make realistic lists and work on things one at a time. Looking at a whole month of this holiday season is less overwhelming if you take it in small pieces. You may also have to lower your expectations of what you can really do, but at least what you do will be less stressful and make the holidays special.
7. Most parents dread their Aspergers children behaving in a challenging way. We worry about it, we look for it, and we try to stop it as soon as it happens. Ironically, this puts all the focus on what you DON’T want from your youngster. If you don’t want him to hit, for example, focusing on getting him ‘not to hit’ actually creates more hitting. Instead celebrate your child every time he does something well. If your kid sometimes hits, cheer wildly every time he is gentle.
8. Since the holidays are a time for the whole family to enjoy together, it’s important to make siblings aware of how stressful this season can be for their brother or sister with Aspergers. Take the time to remind your other kids of their sibling’s sensory issues, communication difficulties, low frustration tolerance and likes and dislikes. Moms and dads can then share the family’s strategy for avoiding potential issues and discuss what they will do if their best efforts are unsuccessful.
9. So often, we get caught up in the trappings of the holidays – the tree, the presents, the outings that have to go exactly as planned. It’s okay to arrange fun things, but remember that these are only trimmings. They aren’t the gift, they’re just the wrapping. The gift is your special youngster. The gift is sharing hope and sweetness with loved ones. Instead of using the Christmas season as a “planning fest,” use it to see the beauty in your Aspergers kid’s uniqueness. Use it to celebrate what he can do, and use it to feel and encourage compassion for his very different way of experiencing the world.
10. We often put pressure on ourselves to make the holidays perfect, which is unrealistic. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that the holidays are a time to cherish one another and the joy of being together. Whether it’s scaling back or starting new traditions, celebrate in a way that makes the most sense for your family and is something that you, your Aspergers youngster, and the entire family will all enjoy.
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