Managing Holiday Stress for Kids with Autism

Between school breaks causing changes in routine and family gatherings increasing the risk of sensory overload, the holidays can be a stressful time for everyone, but especially children with autism. You may find yourself wondering, how can I include my child with ASD in family events?

Here are some ways to manage during one of the busiest times of the year.

Prepare - The Cardinal for Behavior Analysis

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

For children who haven’t experienced the events of the holiday season, practicing things like opening gifts, taking turns, and reacting to a gift they didn’t want can help prepare for gatherings. It can also be useful to break out the family photo album and review who will be attending the gathering with your child, especially relatives who may live far away. Make sure the album is accessible throughout the holiday. However, if too much advanced notice of events will cause your child with ASD stress, keep in mind a good time to start addressing upcoming gatherings.

Discuss some things with family members beforehand as well, such as the need to stick to a schedule or your child’s needs for space. For example, if your child with ASD does not like to be touched, remind family members not to push them for hugs.

Stick to Familiarity as Much as Possible

Stick to Familiarity as Much as Possible

Having a “normal” routine may not be possible during the holidays, so allowing your child to keep familiar items around can be helpful in establishing some structure. Let them wear comfortable clothes as opposed to dressing up or wearing a matching sweater. Incorporate simple, familiar foods into the holiday menu or, when able, make a familiar meal for your child instead of requiring them to eat the same food as everyone else at the gathering.

If visitors typically come at a certain time of day — for example, at dinnertime — then have visitors come over at roughly the same time.

Create Routines Within Gatherings

Create Routines Within Gatherings

Set a detailed schedule for the day with time limits on activities and plenty of transition time between. If your child is older, you can ask for their input on how the day should be scheduled. Keep this schedule posted somewhere central to the gathering and stick to it. When an activity is complete, cross it off or remove it from the list. A visual schedule that uses pictures to represent activities can be used for younger children.

Set Up a Quiet Room

Set Up a Quiet Room

Whether the event is in your house or elsewhere, set up a quiet room away from everyone where your child can slip away when needed. Do this prior to the day of the event and discuss when and how the room should be used with your child. Allow for frequent breaks whenever necessary.

If there are guests who might not understand and try to enter the room, talk to them, or stand guard yourself if needed to give your child the sensory break they need.

Allow a Comfort Item

Allow a Comfort Item

It may not be the most appealing option, but permission to wear headphones or sunglasses at a gathering can allow your child to be part of the festivities without getting too overwhelmed. A “stim bag” or a fidget toy can also alleviate anxiety and be used in combination with a quiet room.

Set Up a Quiet Room

Set Up a Quiet Room

Whether the event is in your house or elsewhere, set up a quiet room away from everyone where your child can slip away when needed. Do this prior to the day of the event and discuss when and how the room should be used with your child. Allow for frequent breaks whenever necessary.

If there are guests who might not understand and try to enter the room, talk to them, or stand guard yourself if needed to give your child the sensory break they need.

Allow a Comfort Item

Allow a Comfort Item

It may not be the most appealing option, but permission to wear headphones or sunglasses at a gathering can allow your child to be part of the festivities without getting too overwhelmed. A “stim bag” or a fidget toy can also alleviate anxiety and be used in combination with a quiet room.

Seeking Support - The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis

Seeking Support

If there are other extended family members your child with ASD trusts, let them in on the plan and tell your child to seek them out as well when needed.

At The Cardinal Center, we have support groups where you can get help on how to manage autism and the holidays. Remember, as always, to be patient with yourself and your child during this change in routine.

Seeking Support - The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis

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