Parenting Your Child With Disabilities During the Holidays

Holiday Time
The holiday season is here: Everyone is busy shopping for gifts, company is coming over, school is out….The holidays are magical for some, stressful for others. Holidays can be tough for children with autism or similar disabilities. They may also be tough for their parents, guardians, or siblings. For children with autism or similar disabilities, this time of year can be particularly overwhelming to the senses: Lights, crowds, traffic, visitors, waiting in line — this upsets children who need routine. The good news is that for every problem you might encounter, there are real-world solutions you can put in place to make the season bright!

Keep the Routine
Try to keep mealtimes and bedtime the same. Use picture symbols to support routines and aid in communication. Prepare your child in advance for change: use calendars, social stories, checklists…. A little advanced preparation can lessen your child’s anxiety and make the activity at hand more pleasurable for the whole family.

Remember your Child’s Needs
Try not to have unrealistic expectations for your child when visitors or relatives are coming over. For someone with ASD, visitors, new food, too many presents can cause stress and make them feel overwhelmed. Sometimes even a hug is overwhelming. Help your child get into the spirit of the holidays. Read books about Christmas, Hanukkah, etc. Watch videos and play holiday music in the home and car. Review expectations, who will be coming over and what they can do if they need a break — before the holidays so they know what to expect.

Be Wary of Overscheduling
It is tempting over the holidays to try and squeeze in lots of visits, day trips, or events. Some kids can’t handle the pace and stimulation this might bring. This could be a quick trigger for holiday meltdowns. Be aware of your child’s limits. If your child gets tired and overwhelmed after activities, be sure to arrange for some down time at home after a fun event. Limit new experiences to one a day. Think of activities that occur in preparation, during and after ANY holiday.
Examples include:
– Cleaning the house
– Getting special decorations out
– Taking photos
– Making special gifts
– Shopping
– Buying a tree
– School vacation starting
– Waiting a special TV show
– Taking the decorations down
– Writing thank you notes

Provide Information
Holiday activities can be confusing from the child’s point of view. Give the child lots of information. Mark special days on a calendar: days before the holidays often involve changes in routines. Include these days, too. Major events can also go on the calendar. You can also use checklists that include details. Use social stories which depict the upcoming event in detail. Stories need to be at a language level that matches the child. Here are some examples.

Involve Your Child
The important part about using calendars, checklists and stories is having the children participate. Use what the child understands. Tools should be quick and simple to understand. Have the child help by writing, coloring or typing. Use calendars or photos that give information. Then…Review! Review! Review! Creating tools is not enough: Use them regularly to talk about what is happening. Rehearsing the information is a process that will help the children understand. Keep these tools for after the holiday. They are useful to help remember what happened once the holiday is over.

Create Happy Holidays
Use the Holiday season to teach time concepts and communication skills.
Write a letter to your relatives to help them understand. Here is an example.

Holiday Behavior
At the beginning of the holiday, establish clear simple “holiday rules”. These rules tell your child about your expectations and should be POSITIVE. Remember to use “do” statements rather than “don’t” statements. Write the rules down or use pictures. Stick with the rules and be consistent. This will establish boundaries for the holidays.

In conclusion, enjoying a safe and relaxing holiday with your child on the autism spectrum or similar disability is to prepare, take it slow, and get to know your child’s cues. While the holidays can be stressful for both the parent and the child, they can also be a unique opportunity to practice skills that are useful throughout the year and to bond with your child.

If you have questions or want more information, please contact:
Contact information:
Anne Catherine Denning, MA, BCBA, LBA
Clinical Director
Consultants for Children, Inc.