Autism Families: Surviving the Holidays

Autism Families: Surviving the Holidays

Supervisor M put together this excellent set of guidelines for holiday sanity-retention, and gave me permission to share it:

Tips for Your Child:

Exercise: Arrange physical activity every day, multiple times each day for some children if possible. Get to the park, take hikes, go rock climbing, check local facilities for holiday schedules for swimming. This will help reduce anxiety and stress, lessen the intensity of ritualistic or stimulatory behaviors, and improve sleep.

Provide escape options: during large gatherings, other events that may be overstimulating, provide a quiet, less-stimulating place for your child to go to, to do some calming activities (stringing beads/popcorn, quiet music, etc). Your child may need to take breaks throughout the gathering- perhaps every ½ hour. Your child may need a familiar person to go with him/her to this place, and help him/her to participate in the calming activities.

Maintain routines: Try to find multiple times throughout the day when your child can participate in parts or all of familiar routines, regardless of the changes surrounding him/her. For example, your child may need to follow his/her usual morning routine (toileting, dressing, eating breakfast) prior to holiday events such as opening gifts. While it may be an inconvenience, maintaining regular routines will likely to help your child to participate more fully in the special activities of the day- probably outweighing the inconvenience.

Maintain diet: for children who have restricted food preferences or food allergies/sensitivities, have plenty of healthful preferred and routine foods; keep sweets to a reasonable limit, and restrict chocolate and other foods with caffeine.

Photos and stories of who and what to expect: Print out some photos of the people your child will see, and photos or icons of the activities that will occur, and the places you will go. There are different ways to use these: prior to the holidays, to talk about things in advance; on the day of the event as picture schedule cards- to let your child know what is happening now and later (e.g. “first…then”, or as a schedule with multiple pictures); as a social story, with text. You can put these together as a holiday book, or keep them on a ring, or Velcro them to a picture schedule board. Try taking more photos this year, to be used in the future, or in a memory book, to facilitate communication with you and others about the holidays.

Role play/video models in advance: practice some situations before the actual event: opening presents, trimming a tree, greetings and thank you’s, singing traditional songs, traveling by plane/train, staying in hotel, etc.


Tips for You:

Stay calm: Easier said than done. 20 seconds of deep breathing throughout the day is a good place to start. Alternatively, recite a poem:


I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Japanese, Narihira

Or, more cynically:

I may live on until
I live for this time
In which I am so unhappy
And remember it fondly.

Japanese, Fujiwara No Kiyosuke

Get some exercise: This is as important for you as it is for your child. If nothing else, get out and take a short walk in the fresh air. Better yet, go for a swim, play racquetball, take a bike ride, try rock climbing (some places will let your child climb too…)

Get a babysitter: Be sure to go do something to remind yourself of the other wonderful parts of your identity- your relationship with your partner, your appreciation of the arts or fine cuisine, your athleticism, your passion for Bloomingdales… Do NOT spend this time on line checking autism links…

Lower your bar: temporarily lower your standards for non-essential tasks; ask yourself where there is room for mess, and let it go this week; let someone else load the dishwasher or fold the laundry.

Ask for support and help: It can be especially difficult to delegate responsibilities to others, especially if you are hosting, and if you are the parent of a child with very specific needs. Still, sharing responsibilities will reduce your own stress, and help you to be more effective in the jobs you are doing. Be clear and specific in your requests, and in your appreciation.

Don’t apologize: There are bound to be some negative comments about your child’s behavior; even your closest relatives may be surprised or overwhelmed to learn how children with autism may respond to such intense changes in routine as occur on the holidays. Try responding to a negative comment either by explaining your child’s experience of the event from his/her perspective. (See attached letter). Alternately, sometimes a deep breath is as good a response in a moment of tension.

You may want to try this approach, by drafting a letter with a similar approach to this one, specifically related to your own child. Or having your child draft their own.

The linked article appeared in the holiday 1999 issue of ASAP News! (Volume 3.5) The Autism Support and Advocacy Project, and Potential Unlimited Publishing.

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