Holidays are a time of excitement, celebration, and gatherings with family and friends. For children with autism, however, this time of year can also be full of new, uncomfortable, and overwhelming experiences caused by anything from unusual food to large groups of people, loud noises, and disruptions to their ordinary schedule.
Whatever your plans are for the holiday season, each comes with a unique set of challenges when a child with autism is present. If you plan to travel, your child may encounter difficult and constraining environments in a car, plane, airport, or an unfamiliar home, and you may feel unprepared if your child reacts strongly or has an emergency. While it may be simpler in some ways, hosting holiday celebrations at home also involves its own challenges as you try to balance the roles of host and caretaker.
Below you’ll find some quick tips and considerations to help prepare for celebrating the holiday season with a family member who may have specialized behavioral or emotional needs.
Preparing for the Holidays
For children with autism, preparation can be the difference between a highly stressful holiday gathering and a peaceful one. You can get your child used to the idea of the celebration with visual presentations of what the gathering will look like, including pictures of family members, locations, and activities, alongside repeated verbal explanations of what’s involved. You might also try putting the event on the calendar and helping your child mark the days before it arrives to help prepare them for the day.
It’s often a good idea to connect in advance with friends and family members that you plan to spend time with over the holidays. This will give you a chance to tell them about your child’s needs, if they’re not already aware, and explain some of the things they can expect to see, both in your child’s behavior and in the methods you use to address them. It’s always a good idea to be specific about things that can trigger your child, whether that’s certain noises, unfamiliar faces, large gatherings, certain smells, etc. If your child is non-verbal, it may be helpful to mention this in advance so they’re not surprised when face-to-face.
If your child reacts strongly to unfamiliar people, you can also try scheduling video calls with certain loved ones in advance of the holidays to get your child accustomed to their faces and voices. This may help moderate their reaction when they see family members in person.
Hosting the Holidays
Many families with a child who has autism prefer to host holiday celebrations for a few important reasons. For one thing, travel can be highly stressful, and contains many uncertainties around sensory stimuli and lack of familiar spaces for children who are accustomed to a certain environment. Besides the advantage of a familiar environment, hosting holiday celebrations at home also gives you greater control of the schedule of events, the types of food served, comforting objects that your child has access to, and the types of activities involved in the gathering. This can help avoid many uncomfortable situations for everyone.
What to Remember when Hosting
For parents of a child with autism, the key to hosting a successful holiday gathering is to make sure someone is always able to put your child’s needs first. It’s a good idea to make sure the responsibilities of preparing meals, organizing activities, and being present with those gathered are shared between at least two people. That way, should an emergency arise for your child, there is always at least one person available to address the situation, whether that’s bringing the child to a quiet room, helping them take a nap, preparing their food, playing their favorite videos on a TV or tablet, or any other useful remedy.
To this end, you may wish to ask your guests to prepare and bring the majority of food and drink for the gathering so you’re not too busy cooking and serving. If you choose this option, remember to notify your guests of any known allergies.
When preparing your home for a celebration, it’s important to have an “escape plan” for your child. If your child loves to spend time in a certain room, consider keeping your guests constrained to other areas of your home so your child always has a safe place to get away from overwhelming stimuli.
Visiting for the Holidays
If you decide to travel during the holidays with your child, the necessary preparations will likely become more intense given that your child’s schedule will be disrupted and– especially if you’re traveling by plane – certain sensory stimuli may be overwhelming. On top of that, your child’s preferred food, objects, and activities will likely be harder to access!
For more detailed tips on traveling with a child with autism, check out our article on “7 Travel Tips for a Child with Autism.”
For holiday gatherings that aren’t too far away from home, it’s often a good idea to visit the location beforehand. This will help you identify potential advantages and challenges of the new environment. As with hosting at home, it’s important to identify an “escape plan” for removing your child from a stressful situation, whether that’s a specific room, a spot outdoors, or, depending on your child’s preferences, the car you drove in! You can also take this chance to identify certain games, activities, objects, and toys that will help your child feel comfortable in the new environment.
Regardless of whether you are able to visit in-person or not, it’s important to speak with the host of the holiday gathering beforehand. This will give you a chance to make them aware of your child’s situation if they’re not already, as well as gather detailed information on what’s planned for the celebration – how many people are invited, types of food that will be present, what the general schedule will look like, etc. If your child has strict eating and napping habits, you may wish to check this with the host to ensure that those can be accommodated.
Once you have the general outline of events, you can make your own plan. This may involve which types of food to prepare and bring for your child, as well as beloved objects, toys, iPad, blankets, etc. that will help your child feel comfortable. It can be helpful to identify times for eating and napping in advance, as well as specific locations in the host’s home where you can take your child for those activities.
We all know that holidays are supposed to be times of peace, joy, and relaxation. While celebrating with a child with autism will likely require a greater degree of preparation and work in advance, it’s important to remember that a stress-free holiday experience is entirely possible! The best paths to achieve this goal are thorough preparation, minimizing uncertainty, and managing expectations.
This last point is perhaps the most important. Being realistic with yourself, your child, and the family and friends with whom you plan to celebrate can help you prepare physically and mentally for any eventuality, and be ready to respond when needed. Knowing that you’re ready for anything will help you attain the peace of mind that holidays are all about!