Christmas can be overwhelming and stressful for everyone, both parents and children. When you add autism into the mix then the stress level is increased dramatically, mostly due to the unique challenges faced by neurodiverse children and adults alike.
Many parents of neurodiverse children are told about how to prepare the child for the stress but actually, there is another way. A few simple changes and a little understanding can help the holiday season become less stressful for everyone, especially those who are autistic.
So here are 10 tips for reducing holiday stress for those with autism, especially children.
10 Remember That The Holiday Season Breaks Routines
Changes in routine can be very stressful for autistic children and the holiday season is full of them. If your child is in school they will suddenly find that their safe and predictable timetable is thrown out of the window as November rolls around.
Christmas performances, carol singing, celebrations and excitement all make school both more unpredictable and much louder than at any other time of year.
In order to help counteract the extra sensory demands of school during the holiday season, try and keep your home routine as predictable as possible. It’s also a great idea to try and schedule some extra alone time and/or downtime for your child to recover before the next day.
9 Ask For The School’s Support
Don’t be afraid to speak to the school about the changes at this time. While the results of this will vary, depending on your school, even just knowing a rough timetable or what your child can expect will really help you to prepare them.
If your child has ear defenders, fiddle toys or other similar items for school make sure they always have them. When everything is stressful it’s easy to forget the small things but for many autistic children, these little adjustments can be the difference between coping and not coping.
Some parents also remove their children from especially stressful points of the holiday season, such as the Christmas party or performance. However, this is very much a personal decision and its necessity will vary, dependant on your child. Don’t be afraid to speak to the school about this if required.
8 Decorate With Caution
Decorations can be both a blessing and a curse. While many children love tinsel, lights, and color, for autistic children too many of them can lead to sensory overload. Lights are one of the greatest flashpoints for this, with some of the crazy effects on LED lights leading to extreme discomfort.
The best way to handle this is to get your autistic child involved in choosing the decorations or light settings. If you have other children then one great way to compromise would be to hang the more vibrant decorations in their bedrooms, or other lesser-used rooms and keep the main areas autism-friendly.
7 Reduce Your Traveling Or Add Recovery Time
Traveling itself is incredibly stressful and this is magnified for anyone who is autistic. It’s unpredictable and can be confusing, loud and disorientating. If you are using public transport then this is magnified, often leading to a huge sensory overload.
Remember that traveling will likely exhaust anyone who is autistic. If you need to make a long journey build in time to recover before expecting them to socialize intensely. This will help them to reset and reduce the chances of meltdowns.
6 Remember That The Holidays Are More Than One Day
Often times there can be an expectation that if you don’t see someone on Thanksgiving or on Christmas Day itself it means that you don’t care. This pressure to visit all your loved ones on the “correct days” can lead to chaotic holidays where so much time is spent traveling and socializing.
Remember that this is nonsense. There are usually many days over the holiday period when people are around and events can be organize. Spreading things out is simply practical and sensible.
All these social demands crammed into just a couple of very long days is a recipe for disaster which is magnified when autistic kids are involved. It takes time for them to recover from social events and cramming so many close together will make them all more stressful.
5 Do One Thing At Once And Work As A Team
Each day try to plan only one thing for that day. This can help reduce stress, traveling time and other sensory triggers. If two things fall on the same day consider tag-team parenting (if possible), This is where one of you goes to the event while the other stays home with your autistic child to give them a break.
Tag team parenting also works especially well if you have two children, as it allows both of them one on one time with a parent. It also means that if one child loves events or activities the other can’t cope with, then neither miss out.
4 Manage Your Expectations Concerning Gifts
It’s good to be aware that autistic children are often terrible at faking joy and gratitude. On a positive note, most are very honest and find it incredibly difficult to lie but this honesty also extends to gifts.
If they get a gift they hate, you will know about it. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have a list and make sure people stick to it, lest they face the sight of a disappointed face.
On the same note don’t be afraid to talk to your child about surprises. Some autistic children would prefer to know exactly what they will get and if that reduces their stress then surely it's worth adjusting your expectations?
3 Don’t Be Afraid To Stay At Home, Without Guests
The big days, such as Thankgiving and Christmas Day itself, are often the biggest flashpoints. There’s so much social pressure to have guests round and socialize, make a magnificent meal and have an incredibly great day. However, back in the real world life doesn’t usually work out like that.
Present giving, family meals and other holiday traditions can be stressful on their own (remember that your children won't have experienced them as often as you have and they often change). Huge social obligations add to this.
Don’t be afraid to spend Christmas Day with just your household, doing whatever works for you. This may also solve the issue of who to spend the day with, simply see family either side of the big day itself.
2 Check For Autism-Friendly Sessions For Family Days Out
Visiting places as a family is often a part of the holiday season but there are some simple steps you can take to make this less overwhelming. Crowds, lights, and noise are all more difficult to deal with for an autistic child so remember this when choosing your destination.
Many tourist attractions have begun to offer autism-friendly sessions, where sensory triggers and crowds are reduced. Look out for these as they will make the whole experience of a family day out much more pleasant for you all.
1 Prioritize Downtime
While pressure is mounting to do everything at once, you need to put your family first and prioritize downtime. By making sure there are days with no obligations to go anywhere or do anything spread in between the days filled with travelling, socializing or visiting, you can help everyone stay calmer.
Marking some days as downtime can help you plan events around time to unwind. This will not only severely reduce the stress of the autistic members of your family but it will reduce everyone’s stress levels. Downtime benefits us all, so make sure you prioritize it.