Thriving, Not Just Surviving, During the Holiday Season

Once we had children with autism, the holidays became an extreme source of stress. There were too many expectations to try and live up to. What makes the holidays difficult for families living with autism is people find it hard to give up their traditions even when they don’t work for a different circumstance. My parents still wanted to keep our childhood Christmas traditions alive because that’s how things had always been done. Marc and Julia couldn’t cope with so many people at a dinner or trying new foods. Marc had anxiety over opening presents and could only open one or two and then he left the room. Family members felt offended when my children did not appreciate the gifts they received.

It has taken several years to make the holidays more of a light rather than heavy time. Here are a few hints that I think have helped.

  1. Back in September, I wrote a blog about creating predictability. This is probably the most important factor in keeping stress levels at bay over the holidays when schedules tend to change. Stick with the normal routines as much as possible. If there are schedule changes, put those into a visual schedule and give the person time to adjust to something new.
  2. Let the person know the time frame for things. For example, if there is a visit scheduled at a relative’s home, show when that will happen on the schedule, when the visit will end, and what they may have to look forward to once the visit is over.
  3. If your child is anxious about unannounced visitors, tell people they need to call in advance so that you prepare your child. We have always discouraged people from dropping by since it causes too much stress.
  4. Allow for some down time. Work some quiet time into the day to re-group.
  5. If unwrapping presents is a source of anxiety due to motor planning issues, consider putting gifts inside gift bags. They can be easily pulled out.
  6. Some children find the element of surprise stressful. Put a photo of what it in the box on the outside of the wrapping paper.
  7. Allow several days to open presents. My son finds opening everything at once too much so he takes about a week to open everything.
  8. Limit new experiences over the holidays. Try planning for some familiar activities like swimming at the pool or going to the library and picking out some DVD’s. Try to go at less busy times for outings.
  9. Schedule some time for just you and your spouse. The holidays can be a great time to take in a movie or go out for dinner.
  10. Keep an open mind about the holidays. Don’t worry if your holidays don’t look like everyone else’s. To keep things running smoothly, we do stick to bedtime and meal time routines.

The most important thing about the holidays is being together and giving your child love and security. Your holiday experience is unique and you can create your own traditions. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

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