Helping Your Child with Autism Navigate the Christmas Holidays

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People with Autism see, hear and feel the world differently, which is why everyday situations can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing for them. The festive season brings many challenges for family members or carers of children with special needs, as navigating the many social situations that occur during the holidays can cause overwhelm in both the child and the already stressed out parents!

Here are 12 Tips for each day of Christmas that will hopefully make navigating this holiday season easier for you and your child.

1. Plan Ahead

Ensure your child has a daily routine that allows them to understand what will happen next to help avoid added stress and anxiety. It may be helpful to communicate about the upcoming events using pictures or linking words to objects associated with each activity.

Helpful ideas for communicating activities include:

  • Writing down the days and times for when each event will take place, marking them on a calendar or putting them into a diary.
  • Showing your child pictures of the rooms that will be decorated
  • Attaching symbols to each object in the picture which represents relevant events, e.g., stars for Christmas Day

Plan an activity schedule for your child during the festive period, so they know what will happen and when. If you plan on visiting friends or relatives at Christmas, it will be vital to tell your child beforehand so they can understand what is expected of them in advance and have time to prepare for that.

2. Keep It Low Key

High energy activities can be problematic, as they can be overwhelming for children with Autism. Unfortunately, there tend to be a lot of these during the Christmas period. Try to ensure that whatever you’re doing, there is a safe and quiet place with soft and warm lighting for your child to use as a cool-down or refuge space incase things get too much. 

3. Provide Plenty of Outlets For Stimming

Stimming is the term used to describe repetitive self-stimulatory behaviour that is common amongst children who struggle with strong emotions and overwhelming situations. Encourage the redirection of this behaviour by providing access to items such as fidget, sensory or comfort toys.

4. Try Not To Argue

Christmas can be a stressful time, and this plus the fact that you may have lots of family around can lead to disagreements. For your special needs child, arguments can often make them feel threatened and more overwhelmed, causing them to act out as a result. Being aware of this means that you can be better prepared to avoid confrontation if it does arise for the benefit of your child.

5. Be Prepared For Sensory Overloads

We all get overwhelmed at Christmas, but for children on the Autism spectrum, this overwhelm can lead to outbursts in behaviour caused by heightened stress. Your first job always needs to be to try and calm the child down, especially if they’re in danger of hurting themselves. If you’re proactive enough, you might be able to remove them from the sensory overload environment and take a break for a while before trying again with more success. 

6. Time Your Visits

Planning each visit to the mall or store will help you navigate through crowds and give your special needs child a clear understanding of the time it takes to complete their outing. Create a visual schedule for them, taking note of how long each activity will take place. If you cannot bring a visual schedule, then it is always good to give warnings of when you will be leaving and returning home.

7. Take Advantage of Sensory-Friendly Experiences

There are plenty of free or low cost sensory-friendly experiences you can enjoy with your child at Christmas that don’t involve lots of people, noise and lights. Museums (especially in off-peak times) often provide a special needs service to allow your child to cope with the environment. Movies or the aquarium are also great ideas. Tip: bring along your kid’s favourite toys or items to make them feel safe.

8. Specialize In Keeping Calm

For some children, the increase in unscheduled activities at Christmas can cause the most stress and anxiety. As a parent, you know your child best and what they can cope with, so this is probably something you’ve already considered and built into your schedule. Doing the best for you and your child – even if that means letting some people down – might be the best Christmas present that you can give your family. But, if a meltdown does occur, try and stay as calm as you can. Remember, your heightened anxiety will only add to your child’s.

9. Be Aware of Isolation Behaviour

If your child with Autism becomes upset or overwhelmed by the holiday activities, they may begin to isolate themselves from others to allow them time to reset. Making sure that wherever possible, there is a safe place for your child to do this will be key to enjoying the season. Sometimes simply walking them away from the crowd can help them relax and possibly rejoin the festivities later.

10. Empower With Technology

If your child is particularly wary of places packed with people, technology might be your answer. A tablet or smartphone that they can play games on might help. Noise cancelling headphones are another great tool that can either drown out the overwhelming sounds, or can be used to calm your child through the playing of music. Either way, it will keep them distracted from what is around them and possibly provide them with some sensory input.

11. Stock Up On Favourite Foods and Treats

If your child has a limited diet or struggles with food textures or colours, then Christmas time can be difficult. Bringing along some food that you know they’ll eat and that makes them feel calm is a great idea. You can either offer it as an alternative, as a side dish or they can have a very special Christmas dinner that’s just for them. Either way, they won’t have to feel stressed out over finding “safe” foods.

12. Set Limits With Your Extended Family

Holidays can be especially tough if you also have extended family to see that perhaps your child isn’t that familiar with. There are few families where everyone will truly understand the special needs of an child with Autism. Your Aunty may feel hurt that your child doesn’t like the dish she cooked. Your sister-in-law may be frustrated because your child won’t play with the rest of the cousins. How can you cope with so many challenges and expectations from your family, all at the same time? Inviting your family to be engaged in advance may work, especially if you give them some tips and tricks about how best to reach out to and include your child. Also, you probably already know which traditions are going to create problems, and you also probably have a good idea about how your child will react to each one. Knowing all this, make a plan ahead of time and share it with family in advance so they’re not 

For more information on how you can better understand, interact and communicate with people on the spectrum, contact My Autism Support Today. You can also visit our website for a free lesson.

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