Navigating the Holidays the Autism Way

The holidays are approaching and although it’s a festive time filled with lights, elves, well wishing and snow, it is also a time filled with stress, parties, gift giving and over eating. For those of us with children, especially those with special needs or autism, holidays can be even more stressful than the norm.

Navigating the Holidays the Autism Way: 10 helpful tips from an experienced mom & special needs educator

As a mom of a 13-year-old son with autism, I have learned quiet a few things over the years. Some of them were easy lessons while others were long painful and often embarrassing ones. I strongly believe that God often allows us to go through difficult situations to teach us important life lessons. I also believe that we can use those lessons to help others…. So with that theory in mind, here is what I want you to know!!!

1. Prioritize as a Family
It is of great importance to sit down with your family and prioritize your activities, set your goals for the season and make certain you remember the reason for the season.

2. Plan Ahead
After prioritizing your activities it is of necessity that you plan for each event, activity, or visit. Consider the time of day, the length of travel, those in attendance, adults only or are children welcome etc.

3. Practice Beforehand
In order to reduce your stress as well as the level of stress in your special needs child; it is always helpful to practice expectations. If your child responds well to social stories, read one to them about your upcoming event. Practice with your asperger’s child to say “No thank you” instead of snarling their nose and saying yuck. Practice other manners that should accommodate special outings such as “thank you”, waiting patiently for their turn or speaking when being spoken to.

4. Pack Favorites to enhance Travel and Surroundings
As parents we are used to taking along the bag full of extras for our kids. But when the child has special needs your bag can quickly turn into a suitcase. It is important to always include their favorite toys, sensory items, fidgets, snacks, food and a change of clothes; No matter what the age. It’s also important to take extra medications, toiletries and other things that might be of use. My theory… It’s always better to have more than what you need than to not have what you need!!!

5. Create an Escape Plan
Let’s face it, not all parties are kid friendly and sometimes despite our best plans, things just don’t go how we thought… For those times, it is very vital that you have an escape plan… If one spouse must stay then a ride home or two cars is necessary. If you have other children it is important to visit with them BEFORE the actual event to see what their preference is if issues occur. It’s not fair to always expect them to leave the fun when their sibling can’t handle the situation. It’s also important to make sure you can make an easy exit from the premises.

6. Prepare Family Members
One of the most important things you can do to navigate the holidays is to adequately prepare family. Prepare them for what your child finds overwhelming, what calms them down, what they prefer and what skills you may currently be working on. Your hosts/hostess will need to be privy to any information concerning food allergies, restrictions or preferences. If family will be in attendance that your son or daughter is not accustom to or familiar with, it will be helpful to have a photo album or flip book of all family members prepared ahead of time to prepare your child. You will also want to make sure your hosts/hostess is made aware of any unusual quirks, habits, or obsessions your son or daughter might possess. For instance, our son Will, loves twizzling paper… so we make sure that any household we enter, is aware of his obsession with paper so they can make sure all important papers are put out of his reach.

7. Pacifying your Child
As a mom and an autism specialist I am always telling my parents and clients that consistency is the basis of everything. And that is true… I also tell them that if something is inappropriate or not okay, it must always be treated as though it is inappropriate and not okay. But I also want to remind you that as a parent, sometimes you have to pick your battles. During the holidays there will be many different situations that are not everyday occurrences, such as staying up past bedtime, sleeping in, eating more sweets than normal, running in the house, or playing in the snow. It is important to remember that during the holidays school is out, schedules are amiss and routines are difficult to follow, that your child can be more of a challenge than normal. This is to be expected out of most, thus the reminder that sometimes pacifying your child might be the way to go depending on the situation.

8. Promote Acceptance
As an advocate of autism and children with special needs, the holiday season is the perfect time to promote acceptance. Do not fall prey to keeping your child harbored because you are afraid of what he or she may do, or how they will be perceived. Do your part by educating people and then give them the chance to do the rest. If your child can handle parades, then take them, if they like music, take them to the area choir concerts. Christmas is the time of year that most are more welcoming than usual and more accepting… Take advantage of the season, their kindness, and their humanity. Teach them about ACCEPTANCE.

9. Encourage Participation
Encourage your child to participate in the activities of the season, although many of them are new and only occur once year. Activities such as caroling, sledding, snowmen building, gift exchanges, visits to Santa Clause, Christmas programs, candle light services, and putting up decorations can be very overwhelming without proper introduction and encouragement.

10. Prevent Over-stimulation
As parents we are very well aware of our special needs triggers. During the holiday season it is very important to maintain that watchful eye to sidetrack an upcoming over stimulation. Often times a hug, a few minutes break, swinging on the porch, or stepping outside can help unwind your child. Be conscious of this and step in when necessary. It maybe helpful to have an idea of a calm area within the house where this can take place if needed.

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