Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way! Lots of loud holiday cheer huh? But parents of children with Autism know how detrimental too much “jingling” can be for a child with sensory issues. The holiday season is upon us and full of bright lights, loud children and music, change in routines and loving but overwhelming extended family.A successful holiday can be achieved, and “success” remember, is always different per each family so for starters, do not compare. We all have different experiences. Many variables come into play when preparing your ASD child for the holidays. Here are some things to think about this season.
Believe it or not, you do have a choice on whether to travel to extended family over the holidays. I have always been a firm believer in openly discussing your situation with friends and family. They may not fully understand the struggles, but they should accommodate as best they can. Let loved ones come to you. The holidays are full of routine shifts, sensory overload and crowds upon crowds of people - keeping things as calm as possible to ensure everyone can enjoy the festivities.
Now obviously, factors play into this decision. I am speaking from experience with more severe Autism. If your child can handle changes in environment and routine, then by all means, travel! Electronic devices, a favorite book or toy, favorite snacks, etc. can do wonders while stuck on a plane or car. Social stories can help prepare your child weeks in advance for the trip and alert them to what they can expect.
If you, however, have any struggles that can arise from long car rides, flights and crowded airports, etc. Skip it. My children cannot tolerate long car rides and I cannot even imagine a flight - it’s one instance avoidance is the best bet. The holidays should be about enjoyment and sheer joy. Minimize the potential issues for not only yourselves, but your ASD loved one. The holidays can be merry right from the comfort of your own home!
One of the factors that affect our children this season can be both a positive and unintentionally negative. The holidays are typically filled with extended family and friends congregating. Crowded homes, loud engagement, hugging, over stimulation to say the least. This is probably the most overwhelming part of this celebration for me personally. Family and friends can mean well, but let’s face it, they don’t understand and therefore, have no idea the added level of stress they can potentially cause.
I am a firm believer in open and honest communication. Alert anyone visiting of your situation, what they should avoid (over touching, hugging, etc.) and limit the allotted time they will be staying. I typically stick to a 1.5-2-hour time frame for all holidays. I find that is the tolerable time for my children before overall meltdown mode kicks in. We can usually entertain them and feed them for a couple of hours while family can enjoy a meal and chit chat. Now obviously my husband and I are never eating or mingling at the same time as one of us must tend to our sons, but that’s the reality of our situation.
We keep visitors to a section of the house and allow a safe space for my boys to escape to if need be. We keep it dimly lit and have a lot of their preferred items readily available. In our home that’s the basement. It’s separated and they can have peace away from the noise.
We also do a short car ride if they get too anxious. Breaking from the environment is almost like hitting a refresh button - works wonders.
Therapists do recommend social stories as well for family gatherings. My boys aren’t at the level of comprehension needed, so I don’t utilize them personally, but I’ve seen this tactic work successfully for moderate and higher functioning children. Social stories can be made right at home and not only places your child into the story but allows you to explain what’s coming in a way they can comprehend and visually see. So, let your inner artist out this season and make a social story!
Twinkling lights, ornaments, giant trees, bells, etc. — lots of not so sensory friendly additions to your child’s environment. I am a Christmas fan so yes; I most definitely decorate our home.
- Take your time decorating. Change of any kind can be very overwhelming. Start decorating early and slowly build up. Let them get accustomed to the newly decorated environment a day at a time.
- I do find my sons love stationary white lights, so I steer clear of anything blinking, strobing or twinkling as they can induce seizures in children with Epilepsy.
- Avoid glass or breakable ornaments as well - they can easily fall, break and be a safety concern for your barefoot little one.
- I avoid real trees - my sons were more inclined to chomp on the real pine needles vs artificial. I find they don’t have much of a desire to chew on the fake needles and limbs.
- Avoid real poinsettias. Oddly enough my son will attempt to eat these plants - easier to again, replace with an artificial version.
- I avoid glitter, tinsel, anything shiny and small enough to be edible. I always give my son a brand-new red chew necklace so he can chomp away on his own personal ornament!
- Opt for faux fur stockings, throws or pillows. I try to incorporate textures I know my children will find pleasing. Fur, microfiber, anything super soft! Helps them to find enjoyment in the new items.
- I do encourage involvement when decorating. I put on a favorite show to keep them in the room and hand over hand assist them with hanging a few ornaments. They may not seem to be interested, but I do deep down believe they enjoy feeling a part of the experience and may just struggle to outwardly express.
Don’t be afraid to engage in holiday activities your little ones may enjoy.
- Try car rides to look at lights. We take about a 30 min ride through neighborhoods to look at the lights. My sons naturally are calmed by short car rides and the lights give them something to briefly look at. We do avoid strobing lights.
- Our town has a special needs Santa that visits the mall - they offer appointment only 15-minute sessions for your special needs child to engage with the big guy. I’ve found this is something steadily reaching more cities so take a look to see what your local mall offers.
- If your child can tolerate parades, visit your towns Christmas parade to catch a glimpse of Santa.
- Sensory friendly holiday movies - we’ve tried this and though my children don’t watch the movie per say, it’s nice getting out amongst other special needs parents dealing with similar struggles. Just keep the popcorn flowing!
All in all, this season is a wonderful time to share with your family, create memories and expose your ASD loved one to the fun side of this seasonal change. Minimize stress and remember that everyone’s “perfect” holiday is different - make your own traditions and define your own perfection!