Coping with the Holidays: Help for Aspergers Children

With Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up, I thought we should have a conversation about coping with the holidays – an especially important topic for parents with Aspergers (high functioning autistic) children.

Aspergers kids and teens are easily over-stimulated. Their emotions overwhelm them, and it is up to the people around them to make life easier for them. The holidays are especially difficult for kids who have Aspergers. Remember, they are not social people. Crowds and noise overwhelm them. They do not cope well with the hustle and bustle of holidays, especially Christmas.

Anticipation for a youngster with Aspergers leads to increased levels of anxiety, which he cannot control. He becomes overloaded, and then you have a potential meltdown at the time when you are all supposed to be enjoying the holiday. The celebration can be ruined and everyone may get upset, especially your youngster who is trying so hard to fit-in.

Some Aspergers kids may not want to join in when the family opens presents. He may be checking out the lights on the Christmas tree, trying to figure out how they work, or he may sit in a corner participating in one of his obsessive hobbies. Let him be. If you pressure him to join in, he may become overwhelmed and go into a meltdown. This will only result in upheaval and chaos for the entire family. Allow the Aspergers youngster to check out the lights and open his presents in his own time. The holiday will be much more pleasant for everyone involved.

Aspergers Stressors—
  • Being pressured in anyway, such as to be on his best behavior, or to join in the festivities can cause overwhelming emotions in the Aspergers youngster.
  • Having too many people around. Crowds and the buzz of conversation can overwhelm the Aspergers youngster.
  • Noise. This includes the crinkle of wrapping paper, Christmas carols, singing and dancing Christmas decorations, or anything that causes sound on an ongoing basis.
  • Too many visitors at the same time. Remember, the Aspergers youngster does not like to be surrounded by people and noise.

Managing Stress—

Parenting is probably the hardest any of us have ever worked for free – or even for pay. Some days work in the office seems easier. There is more predictability, a distinct focus and a formula for doing things. Plus there is collegiality. Parenting a youngster with Aspergers is often completely the opposite: unpredictable, unfocused, and uncertain. This is especially true during the holiday season.

Here are some suggestions on how both you and your Aspergers child can manage stress:
  • Create a sanctuary in one room or part of a room, a place where you put things that make you happy, that comfort you.
  • Establish a hobby.
  • Even if there is only one activity you can do comfortably with your child, do it when you feel you can and savor whatever moments of connection you experience.
  • Exercise. It is no secret that vigorous and REGULAR exercise will alleviate depression and stress and anxiety.
  • Find a good therapist.
  • Find your little pockets of happiness every day.
  • Have a good cry.
  • Keep a journal. Writing is very therapeutic. Find one with an attractive cover and write in as often as suits you.
  • Make a “date” for coffee and talk therapy with a close friend on a regular basis or as needed.
  • Take a bath with lots of bubbles, light scented candles around the tub, and sink in (with a favorite CD playing in the background). If the door has a lock, use it!
  • Try something new like yoga or pottery or take up an instrument. Something just for you.
  • WALK. This is the easiest, cheapest and most accessible form of stress reduction.

Just as we need to be on the alert for signs of stress in our Aspergers children, we need to stay tuned in to our own feelings as parents. If you find yourself crying, sleeping more or less than usual, having a change in appetite or loss of interest in things that usually bring pleasure, you may be suffering from too much stress. Don’t be hesitant to seek help. A good therapist can be an excellent ally.

How Parents Can Help—

How can you enjoy the season while at the same time keeping your Aspergers youngster calm and behaving appropriately? Here are some tips:

• Allow only one person to open presents at a time. This will alleviate the crinkle of wrapping paper and nose from the excited voices of siblings.

• Ask the youngster to look directly into your eyes when you talk to him. Praise him when he is successful.

• Aspergers kids are often immature. Never tell them to act their age. They have no concept of age-related behavior.

• Be sure the youngster knows what is expected of him. Use simple language that he can understand.

• Encourage the Aspergers youngster to enjoy himself and have fun. If this means he retreat to a quiet area where he can be alone, let him be. This is his way of coping and of enjoying the holiday. Never pressure an Aspergers youngster to play with other kids.

• Explain to your youngster what will be expected of him (e.g., to say ‘hello how are you’ to guests and sit at the table to share the meal). Your youngster will also need to be given permission to leave the festivities, and you can rehearse this together with some simple role play. This is really important as it gives your youngster an exit strategy and allows him to get through the celebrations without going into meltdown.

• Give the Aspergers youngster lots of support, praise and TLC. Let them know that you love them and are there for them, always.

• Have a quiet breakfast on Christmas morning.

• Identify ways to cope with behavior problems. Hugging will help some Aspergers kids, while others don’t like to be touched. Get to know your youngster.

• If you see that your Aspergers child is becoming stressed, you can activate an “exit cue” so he gets out before the situation deteriorates.

• Keep any physical changes to your home to the minimum, so by all means decorate, put up cards and a tree, but just don't make a really big change to the environment. Don’t put out any presents until the day they are to be opened, because your Aspergers youngster will have a hard time keeping his hands off and will became anxious and potentially defiant.

• Keep instructions simple and on a level that the youngster can understand.

• Keep meals quiet. Do not allow toys at the table. Ask each youngster to talk about their favorite toy, including the Aspergers youngster.

• Keep noise minimal. Do not play music for extended periods of time or it will become nothing but noise to the Aspergers youngster.

• Keep visitors minimal. Family members and friends should keep visits short and they should visit at separate times. Be sure everyone knows when they are expected and how long they are expected to stay.

• Learn to identify stress triggers and avoid them when possible.

• Limit choices to keep the youngster from being overwhelmed.

• Prepare your youngster for any changes by calmly telling him the day before what will be happening. Visual supports always work well, so use photos or simple pictures to explain what will be happening.

• Reduce the time talking about the festive occasion. Remember your Aspergers child cannot easily control his emotions and to talk constantly about the event will simply lead to stress and anxiety. It is useful to enlist the help of others in your home and keep any conversations to a minimum when your Aspergers youngster is within ear-shot.

• Sing or whisper words to young kids in order to get their attention and to help them keep focused.

• Teach the youngster stress busting techniques such as deep breathing or counting to ten. Many Aspergers kids find a stress ball beneficial.

• Try to incorporate flexibility into the youngster’s routine at an early age. This allows him to realize and accept that things do change.

• Use social stories to prepare Aspergers kids for new social experiences, the new school year, a move, and any other changes that will take place in their life.

• Warn the youngster well in advance of any changes to be made in his environment, such as moving the furniture or rearranging his room. The youngster’s school must be made aware that moving his desk can cause behavioral problems.

Remember, Aspergers kids are unique. They have their own quirks, distinct personalities, abilities, likes and dislikes. The only difference between them and any other youngster is that they look at the world in a different way. They just need a little extra love, support, understanding and patience from those who love them.

Following these simple steps should lead to a much more positive experience for everyone and will provide your Aspergers youngster with the love, support, and confidence to participate fully in the holidays.

My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns in Aspergers Children and Teens


Kmarie said...

Thank you for this. I found it extremely helpful for my son and myself. Looking back on my childhood it makes sense why I chose the things I did...and when people said " You should come have fun. You need to come be with everyone- it's not fun by yourself." But truly I WAS having fun. That was my way of enjoying it. It is so nice to be reminded as an adult that my A. S. son needs guilt free down time- even if it is not everyone else's definition of 'fun' and joining in.
Thanks for all the helpful tips. I really enjoy your blog.

Anonymous said...

This all makes SO much sense now.My daughter was diagnosed 4 mo. ago.Thanksgiving last year was a disaster since it was the first time we've ever celebrated it my sister's house ever, plus there were a bunch of her friends we didn't know as well.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hutten--

I hope this e-mail will actually be received by you personally rather than only a staff member. I just want to say how very much I appreciate your work and the time you take to compile such valuable and practical newsletters. Many newsletters I receive as a professional counselor are really not that practical for daily living, and I often just delete them. But not the case with yours. Although I am a counselor who works with Aspergers children and teens, I also have autistic twins of my own. It has been a long hard road through the years, and I know how very much parents need the practical support and counsel you give to all of us. Words cannot express how rare and how valuable your support and information is for us parents and counselors. The fact that you provide this as a free service is most unusual! Please keep up the good work, and God bless you!

Thanks a million,


Lisa Z said...

This is so helpful! Thank you so much.

~mom of a 13-year old Aspie son

Mike said...

Hmmm, thanks for the interesting article, I like it.


Children Friendly Holidays , Child Friendly Places to Eat , Holidays Baby, Kids in Holidays

Anonymous said...

Hello. My AS son is 5 and having a struggle with the whole Santa Claus and the idea of Christmas. He has never really liked going to see Santa, but last year seemed to be a breakthrough! Not only did he sit (next to) Santa, but he engaged in one heck of a conversation about trains with him too! The idea of presents on Christmas morning was an amazing concept, and the day itself went off nearly without a hitch! This year, he has zero interest. He refused to talk to Santa, let alone go near him, and doesn't want presents (but wants new toys..). We started decorating, which he's so far OK with, and says he is excited to get a tree and decorate it until it's "beautiful". He said Santa made him feel nervous, but couldn't provide an explanation why. Anyone else having similar issues? How do I get him past this? Is this common? I'm so new to all of this still!

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