The holiday season is a joyful time, when we gather with friends and family, but for autistic kids and their families it can be a time of increased stress and anxiety.
In this article we would like to share some ways you can make family gatherings less stressful for your autistic child, and the holiday season an enjoyable time for everyone.
1. Keep to a Routine
It is important to maintain a familiar routine as much as you can before, during, and after holiday visits. By keeping this routine in place, your child will less likely be tired or hungry, and be a bit more at ease. Kids thrive when there are routines, predictability and structure in place, especially neurodivergent kids.
2. Explain and Set Expectations
Prepare your child for the visits by explaining what will happen and tell them what they can expect. This can include how you will get there, who will be there, what activities will be done, and when you will leave to get back home. Try to include something they enjoy and may look forward to. The more information you provide, the more likely your child will feel less anxiety about the unknown.
3. Take Comforting Items and Snacks
Allow your child to take some comforting items with them to the family gathering. This can include a favorite toy, a comforting blanket, stuffed animal, or a book. We recommend limiting these items to just a few, and make a note of what you are taking, so you can easily keep track of them and not leave them behind when it is time to go home. It is perfectly acceptable in this situation to take a tablet or other electronic device, which can be pulled out to help comfort your child if all else fails. Also, make sure to take along some of your child’s favorite snacks, especially if they are picky eaters or have feeding difficulties.
4. Plan for Sensory Differences
If your child has sensory differences, plan ahead to take noise canceling headphones and sensory toys or items, that can provide comfort and regulation when needed. It is also always a good idea to contact the host of the home you will be visiting, prior to the holiday gathering, to discuss your situation, and inquire if there will be any holiday décor that might have bright lights, animation or loud sounds that could frighten your child.
5. Don’t Force Your Child to Engage
It is important not to force your child to engage with others if they appear uncomfortable. Don’t force them to give hugs or kisses if they don’t want to. Read your child’s cues and body language. If they appear stressed, use whatever regulation tools work best for them. And If your child needs a break from the festivities, that’s ok. Find a quiet space that they can use to reset.
6. Don’t Worry About What Others Think
Lastly, try not to worry about what your friends and family may think. Your child may or may not have a meltdown. Just be prepared for that possibility, then you won’t be surprised or feel overwhelmed. Do your best to have a good time and ensure your child is also happy and comfortable.
Incorporating the above tips into your holiday gathering plans can go a long way to help your autistic child have an enjoyable, and less stressful, experience. If you have any questions about your next family gathering with your autistic or neurodivergent child, please reach out to us. We are always here to help!