Surviving Christmas Break: Tips for Parents with Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Christmas break gives the family a reprieve from the ordinary time spent with school and work; however, crammed schedules and unpredictable routines, mixed with the sights and sounds of the holidays, can add up to two weeks full of stress for a youngster with ASD or High Functioning-Autism (HFA) – and his or her parents and siblings. The change in routine is the biggest difficulty during the holidays. The unfamiliarity and excitement often lead to many difficult moments.

If you are the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, then following the guidelines below will help make Christmas break run a lot smoother:

1.    A daily calendar can be very helpful during the Christmas break, especially to help your ASD youngster anticipate any parties or family gatherings that you may be going to.

2.    Avoid taking your “special needs” son or daughter shopping on the busiest shopping days of the year. The chaos, noise of large crowds, and long lines will definitely add stress to your life. If your youngster is absolutely known to meltdown during shopping, you can select a few gifts and bring him or her home. Set up a shopping experience in your home for your youngster. The whole family can participate. Have a checkout counter and a gift-wrapping table.

3.    Before you leave for holiday parties, parades, or other fun events, have a quick family meeting so your whole family knows how long you plan to stay and how you expect them to behave. This will benefit “typical” kids as well, since any youngster can get overwhelmed with the excitement of the holidays.

==> Crucial Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism 

4.    Kids with sensory sensitivities may require a little extra planning to enjoy holiday festivities (e.g., you may need to bring along ear plugs if you will be in a noisy environment, or sensory fidgets if your youngster is expected to sit still). For sensitive children who need to wear dress clothes for events, bring along some soft clothes for them to change into as soon as possible. Be prepared by knowing your youngster’s specific limitations and how you will handle them if the need arises. Don’t wait for the meltdown to begin.

5.    Don’t get sucked into the “hustle-bustle trap.” None of us are very good at rushing in a relaxed way. The two just do not go together. It is impossible for ASD kids to rush without getting angry. Make sure you leave enough time to enjoy the journey and avoid meltdowns. Kids on the autism spectrum should be given notice of transitions.

6.    Don’t overbook your “special needs” boy or girl. It’s important to use Christmas break for relaxation. Try staying in pajamas until noon. Pop your favorite popcorn and watch a movie when you wake up. You’ll be surprised how an hour or two of relaxation can rejuvenate your child’s body, mind, and spirit.

7.    Eliminate unnecessary anxiety associated with getting together with family members you rarely see by looking through photos of relatives prior to your event. Play memory games matching names to faces. This will help your child feel more comfortable with people he may not have seen in a while. Aunt Martha won’t seem quite so creepy when she bends down to hug your youngster.

8.    During family gatherings, have a code word your youngster can use if she feels overwhelmed and needs a break. Assure your youngster that, if she uses the code word, you will respond right away. Again, giving kids some control during activities that may be over-stimulating for them will reduce anxiety.

9.    If your youngster has an interest in a particular item, you can use that item as a “focus point” to help him keep calm and on task during Christmas break. It can be a favorite toy, Pok√©mon card, stuffed animal, or anything that your youngster has a strong attachment to. You can create a few simple rules in which your youngster can have access to this item during the day. Make them easy enough so that he will have the opportunity to spend some quality time with his item of interest throughout the day and during Christmas break. This will reinforce positive behavior and make your life more enjoyable!

10.    If your youngster is easily over-stimulated, limit holiday decorations in your home. Too many twinkling lights combined with smells from the kitchen and other holiday distractions, while enjoyable to most, can be too much for kids on the spectrum. Let your child help you decorate for the holidays so she is involved in the changes that take place in her environment.

==> Teaching Social-Skills and Emotion-Management to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

11.    If your child has food sensitivities or allergies that prevent him from eating holiday treats, plan ahead to offer alternatives (e.g., all-natural candy, a gluten-free treat) from home.

12.    Incorporate deep breathing or other coping strategies into your day. Let your child see you use techniques when you are feeling stressed. Encourage her to use relaxation techniques on a daily basis. Breathing, visualizing, and positive thinking are powerful tools.

13.    Family routines change drastically during the holidays. Bedtimes are later, naps may not be on schedule, and there is no set schedule. Make sure you start getting back into your daily routine a few days before school reconvenes so that the adjustment in January is a little easier.

14.    Let your child do one thing for the holiday that makes him feel proud. Children can collect acorns, or place a few jingle bells into a bowl for a beautiful centerpiece.  They can fold the napkins or put the forks out. Let them draw a special picture to place on your guest’s chair. Be prepared to accept their participation as perfect and wonderful. Restrain from correcting or straightening out the napkins and enjoy the holidays.

15.    Make “notes to self.” Getting the constant chatter and lists out of your head decreases stress and anxiety. Children love making lists. Give them a clipboard or dry erase board. Help your ASD youngster make a list of what she wants to do for the holiday. It might be helping decorate, or what to pack for a self-care relaxation bag. This will help you relax and help your child feel involved. Encourage her to add happy words (e.g., smile, laugh) or draw a smiley face on her list.

16.    Relax your expectations and definitions of what a fun experience is for your kids. Most of us do not need the full blown exhausting experience of holidays to reflect that we had a good time. A few positive minutes is worth a lifetime of memories!

17.    Social stories, books, and movies can be a big help in preparing your ASD youngster emotionally for holidays. Comfortable clothing and small dose exposures to holiday sounds can help physically. Think ahead with an eye for “anxiety causing” issues. Is wrapping paper too loud? Use easy open bags or just decorate with a bow. Are the electronic bears with bells at grandpa’s house going to cause sensory overload? Ask him to unplug them before you get there. Let friends and family know about meltdown-triggers ahead of time. If your youngster doesn’t like to be hugged, suggest a handshake or just a wave.

18.    The meaning of Christmas can be abstract and difficult for a youngster with  ASD to comprehend. To make it easier: (a) prep him ahead of time about the updated school schedule and special events; (b) have pictures or social stories about what he can expect; (c) practice and rehearse what is going to happen, especially if your youngster is going to be a part of a presentation; (d) talk to the teachers and assistants about how your youngster is going to participate, and confirm that supports are in place to help him succeed; and (e) plan for a quieter evening after the event, so your youngster has a chance to decompress from the excitement.

19.    If you’re wanting to get out of the house for a few hours during Christmas break, let your youngster invite a close friend to join you for a couple of games at your local bowling alley, take an adventure to a local museum, or just plan a short outing to the park to play. You can always check your local area for “autism-friendly” activities that your youngster might enjoy participating in (e.g., Christmas lights, holiday crafts, a visit with Santa, Christmas stores, etc.). If the plan is to stay close to home, you can always have a family movie afternoon, play board games together, or enjoy reading a book to your youngster.

==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder 

20.    Visiting friends and family will always pose a challenge. Some moms and dads insist on hosting instead of visiting a place that is unfamiliar to their youngster. If you are going to a relative’s house: (a) prepare a social story so your youngster knows exactly what to expect; (b) make sure you prepare your youngster to travel; (c) bring activities that your youngster is familiar with and enjoys doing; (d) speak to your hosts and arrange a quiet spot for your youngster to retreat to if the activities are too overwhelming; (e) if your youngster is weary of large groups and attention, give relatives a heads up about approaching him or her; (f) arrive early to set up and get comfortable; and (g) give yourself some permission to leave early if needed.

21.    Your youngster can enjoy downtime when she feels over-stimulated at your house or at your relatives. Set up a “break space” and be sure that the other kids and guests know that this space is off-limits. Empower your youngster to recognize when she needs to go to her break space. No matter where you may be, your youngster needs to know that she has a special location where she can be calm, relax and enjoy some quiet time.

22.    During Christmas break, try to maintain as much of your youngster’s usual schedule as you possibly can, using your knowledge of what he does each day. If he normally does something like board-work first thing in the morning, or spends a certain amount of time on Spelling before lunch, you can help him review what he has been learning at school. Making a game of your youngster’s Spelling, Science or Social Studies will show him that you know his daily schedule is important. You can make this a fun experience, while still maintaining a similar routine that your youngster can feel comfortable with over the break.

Christmas break doesn’t have to be a stressful time of year for you or your youngster. I hope the strategies listed above will help your entire family enjoy this fun time of year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

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