For many, the upcoming holidays conjure up visions of being with friends and family, enjoying festive holiday music and bright lights, taking a break from work and school, and relishing being home together. For many families with autistic children, however, the reality can be starkly different.
I asked Drs. Megan Hancock and Karen Wilson, clinical psychologists at the Toronto-based “mental health gym” MindFit Health (which serves clients virtually), for their top holiday tips for parents and caregivers. I also asked Stephanie Friedman, parent of a 12-year-old autistic son and host of the highly regarded Autism Journey podcast, for her key insights.
Autistic children thrive on routine, structure and consistency. With the December school break, established routines no longer exist. The excitement around the holidays, social expectations, and sensory overload can be overwhelming, leading to emotional dysregulation and meltdowns. Dr. Hancock says, “There is an important mismatch between the environment and the child and their way of doing things.”
Compounding this are our expectations and wishes as parents and caregivers. Many of us fondly remember how we celebrated the holidays growing up and want to replicate these traditions. However, these experiences can be uncomfortable for the child, exacerbating stress for the entire family.
Dr. Wilson emphasizes the importance of making your child feel comfortable and safe. Reflect on their needs and what is most enjoyable and disruptive for them. Then, prioritize and be selective about where to be disruptive. This might include a particular religious service or a family dinner. Both Drs. Hancock and Wilson discuss the importance of consciously preparing your child and yourself, your family and others.
If you are planning to go somewhere new with your child, take them there ahead of time and make them as familiar as possible with the environment. Many autistic children have difficulty navigating transitions, so give them time to process any upcoming changes and set expectations. Pictures and visual schedules can be helpful depending on their age and capabilities.
Ms. Friedman used social stories with her son for many years, preparing him to manage better. Dr. Hancock adds that you should develop a Plan B/exit strategy if something goes awry. It might mean, for example, not staying over at grandma’s house during the holidays but instead visiting during the day.
To lower your child’s anxiety, keep up their daily routines and activities as much as possible. If a guest is coming to stay at your home, don’t allow them to sleep in or share your child’s room. As Dr. Wilson says, “Keep some things sacred.”
Maintain your child’s schedule as much as possible despite visitors, holiday parties, etc. Consistency is so important. Minimize unstructured time by keeping your child engaged in activities they enjoy, whether skating, baking or playing a special game.
Be mindful of your child’s unique needs. Carve out space for them to retreat to as needed. Ms. Friedman’s son benefits from planned breaks when he becomes overwhelmed. My son Andrew had a special room in our basement where he could throw pillows, yell, calm himself or have quiet time.
Those picture-perfect visions of togetherness inevitably come crashing down during the holidays. Adjust your expectations based on your child’s needs. If you’re going to a loud holiday party, leave early if your child finds the environment overpowering.
And not every autistic child can handle crowded malls or sitting on Santa’s lap. Ms. Friedman’s son, unlike many other autistic children, is a sensory seeker who enjoys lights and music; in larger groups, however, he prefers to escape. As she says, “Lean into your child’s world.”
It’s OK to acknowledge how difficult the holidays can be. Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements if you need extra support. Breaks are critical, even if it’s a ten-minute walk or a religious ceremony you want to attend. Try to let go of your self-imposed pressures and desires. Dr. Wilson reminds us to “give yourself grace and be compassionate towards yourself. Pick and choose joy.”
Fidget toys and comfort items can lower sensory overload. For years, Ms. Friedman carried a bag of light spinners and squeeze toys for her son. Other caregivers have iPads or videos on hand. And if your family gets invited to someone’s house for dinner, prepare the host beforehand.
Your child may be unable to sit at the table for a sustained period. They may need noise-cancelling headphones. They might not want to be touched or hugged. You might have to leave early. Should your child have restrictive eating behaviours, let the host know you will bring their food. If the host is insulted and not understanding, don’t go: your child is more important.
With so much energy devoted to your autistic child, it’s easy to relegate their siblings to the background unintentionally. Remember that siblings are just as needy. As a family, this might mean you need to do things separately to meet every child’s needs, for example, with one child going on a holiday sing-along and another staying home.
These strategies all involve trial and error. Persevere if a solution doesn’t work and, as Ms. Friedman says, “Be prepared, patient and understanding. Put yourself in your child’s shoes.”
Dr. Hancock concludes by asking, "Why not create new traditions and ways of doing things?” Plans might go offside, but your child might equally surprise you, particularly with support and preparation, and exceed your expectations.
My warmest wishes for a lovely holiday season!
Jan Stewart is a highly regarded mental health and neurodiversity advocate and Chair of Kerry’s Place Autism Services, Canada’s largest autism services provider. Her brutally honest memoir Hold on Tight: A Parent’s Journey Raising Children with Mental Illness describes her emotional roller coaster story parenting two children with multiple mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.
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