Not sure how to support your autistic child through the holidays? Worried it’ll be too much for him or her?
The holiday season has a way of sneaking up on us every year. Before you know it, you’re in the thick of lists, decorations, giving away toys to make room for new toys, ordering online, shopping in crowded malls and grocery stores, planning elaborate meals, and making more lists.
You’ve barely had time to mentally prepare yourself, let alone your children. And if you have a child on the spectrum or who is otherwise sensory sensitive, the holidays can become even more stressful.
You may feel like you are fighting a losing battle in trying to protect your child from overstimulation. Or, you may be unsure of how to handle situations where your child seeks out highly stimulating holiday-related experiences, but becomes over excited easily. In this article, we will talk about a few simple strategies that can make all the difference in balancing sensory input over the holidays.
If you don’t celebrate Christmas, or you celebrate other holidays like Hanukkah or Diwali, we’ve designed this how-to guide to be applicable across holidays and busy seasons in general. With flexibility and intentionality, you and your children can enjoy this time together, and make special memories that won’t stress you out to look back on.
Whether you go all out or tend to be more minimalist with holiday celebrations, it’s important to be intentional. Goal setting for the holidays will help you decide what you want to prioritize and what you can let slide. By identifying what you’ll do (and what you won’t do) in advance, you’ll set yourself up to feel successful when things get busy.
For example, if hosting an annual Christmas or New Year’s Eve party is one of your valued traditions, prioritize that while bumping attendance at other parties off the “must do” list. Or, perhaps Christmas is an important holiday for your family to go visit grandparents who are a long drive or flight away – and so, for New Year’s, you might stay in and watch a movie with popcorn and hot chocolate.
Have Doable Days
In addition to Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, November and December in general can be stressful. And, you may have up to two weeks of full days with your children at home due to school breaks. During this time, understand that though they might not show it or tell you, your child is working really hard to cope with changes in routine and extra sensory input.
Think about how you can decrease demands on them and on yourself. That way, they can keep directing energy toward self-regulation, and you can keep supporting them to do this and helping them recharge. It’s a full time job and you need to give yourself room to do it.
Let Go of Expectations
When you let go of expectations for what your holidays will look like, you create space to enjoy the small moments with your child. For example, you might not make it to the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at your local park, and that’s OK. You don’t have to do things that are overtly holiday-themed in order to enjoy the holiday season with your family. That night might be spent at home reading books like Llama Llama Holiday Drama (buy on Amazon here) or Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree together, or playing music in the background while working on a puzzle or drawing.
Be ready to let go of expectations in the moment. Especially for children with ASD, the ability to regulate in overstimulating situations can vary from day to day or even hour to hour. You may make plans and then break them. On Christmas, if you are staying local, you may not make it to visit every family member’s home as you’d planned.
If you’re traveling and visiting family out of state, you might be helping your child learn to operate a new toy or take turns playing with cousins instead of sitting down to a family meal. If you let go of expectations ahead of time, you’ll have more fun going with the flow wherever you are on the big day.
Dealing with Overstimulation
There are two skills to have in your toolbox when it comes to dealing with overstimulation around the holiday season: how to avoid it, and how to problem solve when you can’t. To avoid overstimulation, you can do things like skip the crowds by shopping online, visit Santa Claus on a weeknight rather than during the weekend, and wrap gifts in hand-stamped brown paper instead of glitter and curly ribbons.
But it’s not always possible to avoid situations that will become overstimulating around the holidays, and you shouldn’t have to. Maybe you really want to go to that block party in your neighborhood where there will be lots of kids running around, or maybe you can’t get out of shopping on the weekends due to your work schedule. That’s why you need strategies to deal with sensory overstimulation in the moment.
3 Strategies To Deal With Overstimulation During The Holidays
1. Carry a “sensory shield kit” in your car.
Stock it with noise cancelling headphones, fidgets, sleep masks, a favorite book or stuffed animal, and whatever other items work best for your child to help them calm down or tune out too much stimulation.
2. Introduce Fewer Gifts & Toys
If your child receives more gifted toys with all the bells and whistles than you were expecting, don’t hesitate to put some away in the closet for a rainy day in January. Sometimes opening a brand new toy a month or two after Christmas Day means your child can enjoy it more.
3. Have an early New Year’s
Netflix offers a pre-recorded countdown, so you can celebrate New Year’s at whatever time works best for your child. Balance festivity with consistency by integrating fun activities with established routines. This helps your child practice successfully dealing with stimulation that is a little bit more than what they’re used to, without pushing them too far past their sensory comfort zone.
Dealing with Dysregulation
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to have sensory sensitive holiday season is to know ahead of time that there will be hiccups, and that is normal! Sensory input is one way that children on the spectrum can learn from their environment, and sometimes they’ll learn through situations that don’t go so well.
For example, despite all your best efforts your child might have a tantrum because they don’t want to leave the play area at the mall. Or, they might get so excited about watching their favorite Christmas movie on Christmas Eve that they have difficulty calming down to go to bed.
Consider using a system like the Zones of Regulation or the Incredible 5-Point Scale to help you and your child cope, either in the moment or while debriefing later. Focus on modeling being calm in the moment to help them regulate, and be as neutral as you can (even though it’s totally normal for you to feel stressed, too). Later, talk about or practice how the situation could be handled differently next time, with your child or partner, but don’t overthink it too much.
Parenting a child on the spectrum is a master class in flexibility, and you’re constantly going at a hundred and ten percent – so give yourself a break during this holiday season, too.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.