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Tips to Help Your Family Enjoy the Holiday Season

In this post, Autism Speaks staff member and autism mom Denise Bianchi provides tips to help you and your family enjoy the holiday season and make it as fun and as stress-free as possible! Denise was a member of the Autism Speaks Autism Response Team, a team of employees specially trained to connect people with autism, their families and caregivers to information, tools, and resources. Call the Autism Response Team at 888-288-4762 (en Espanol at 888-772-9050) or email them at familyservices@autismspeaks.org!

From last-minute shopping trips to holiday parties and family gatherings, the holiday season is often a stressful time for parents.  But for children with autism spectrum disorder who rely on structure and routine, the hustle and bustle of the holidays can be extremely unsettling. This distress can often impact the entire family.  Most of us dream of the last day of break before a holiday. We get to take part in all sorts of fantastic things during the break, like sleeping in, visiting family, playing games, going on getaways and stalking our friends on Facebook at 2 A.M.  However, if you are like my family and have a child with autism, it can be a lot different.  

My son Andrew is 15 years old and it has taken many years for him to become familiar with Christmas, the celebration of it all, the decorations and the 35 + people who will pass through my house during the two holidays.  You see for the past 12 years I have had every holiday at my home for Andrew.  Andrew was so much better being in his own home, on his own computer, getting away from our loud families that come and sometimes don't understand how it affects him.  It is easier to have the holidays in my home so Andrew can be himself, relax and go to his room when he needed quiet time.  Although I would love to be invited over someone's house and not do all the shopping, cooking and cleaning, it gives me a sense of calmness knowing Andrew will be happy.    

We often put pressure on ourselves to make the holidays perfect, which is unrealistic. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that the holidays are a time to cherish one another and the joy of being together.  

What I try my best to do with Andrew is to:

Do Your Best to Maintain the Current Structure and Routine

Maintaining the current structure and routine for your child may not always be possible during the holidays, but there are ways to help reduce your child's anxiety while increasing your family's enjoyment of the holiday season.  As we know, a person with autism thrives on being in a familiar environment with routine and structure.  So while children with autism like Andrew may not enjoy every minute of the school day, they take comfort in the structure. He feels safe when he knows what to expect and when and what is going to happen. When you take away that environment and predictability, he feels lost. The seemingly silly tantrums children with autism often throw are often actually their struggle to cope with the changes they see as unsafe.  This begs the question, “How do we help our children with ASDs not only to make the transition, but enjoy the holiday break?” While the concept might seem hard, it can be done.  

We try our best to do some of the daily routines he does at school like calendar group, weather of the day and some reading.  I am amazed how much he has learned over the past few months – lots of geography, learning to sort papers and some daily living skills.

Keep Some Schedules as Consistent as Possible.

Schedules change quite drastically during the holidays, if it’s possible to keep some routines consistent. While we try to sleep a little later, we are not rushing out the door. We still keep the same breakfast that he likes, we get dressed for the day and we try to stick to our behavior plan that was developed in school.  I use a point board for him to earn points so he can get a reinforcer he wants. This keeps him accountable for his behaviors even though we are not at school.  Continue to use behavioral support strategies to help your child during the holidays. Consistency of implementation will help you and your child remain engaged each day.

While you may never be able to duplicate the structure school provides, it helps to maintain the school year's daily schedule, right down to meal times and bedtime, as much as possible. It can be very tempting to let your kids stay up late and sleep in—especially on weekends, when you want to do the same—but in the long run, sticking to the same schedule pays off by keeping your child more comfortable, and hence more cooperative.

Even with the best-laid plans, you may see some regression and worsening behavior over vacation. Give yourself a break for not being able to magically avoid it. And be ready to hold your ground in as calm, firm and consistent a manner as possible. 

Listen to Your Child

We like to visit family – even though we don't stay too long, he sometimes enjoys visiting.  He likes to walk around someone's house and see what they have!  However, listen to your child. If they are not comfortable with a certain holiday activity or begin to show challenging behaviors, decide if it is necessary for them to join in. While you want them to participate in all the joys of the holiday season, decide if it is likely to lead to a meltdown and increased stress for everyone.

Get a Break!

My husband and I plan for a much needed break by getting a sitter going out to eat, going out with friends, a night away and catching up on just us!   After all the holidays can be so stressful!

So often, we get caught up in the trappings of the holidays – the tree, the presents, the outings that have to go exactly as planned. It’s okay to arrange fun things, but remember that these are only trimmings. They aren’t the gift, they’re just the wrapping. The gift is your special child. The gift is sharing hope and sweetness with the people you love. Use it to celebrate what your child can do, and use it to feel and encourage compassion for your child’s very different way of experiencing the world.  

It's the most wonderful time of the year!!

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.