For parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, sensory, or other special needs, the holidays can be nothing short of a nightmare. One that continues for more than a sleepless night. Knowing your child's abilities, limitations, and preferences and adapting accordingly can make this time of year far more bearable, for everyone involved...
Visiting. If family and friends are coming to your home, make sure your child knows when (day and time...and use a countdown timer as well if that helps) and that he/she can go off by themselves (with mindful supervision) whenever they wish. Insisting that they greet people at the door or that they sit with everyone to "catch-up" could be a meltdown or escape moment waiting to happen.
If you’re heading to the homes of others, do everything possible to ensure a short visit (brief is better)…that as few “new” faces are there as possible (try to visit during an "off" time)…and that a quiet place is shown and available to your child upon arrival. And, if your family or friends are unaware of your child’s diagnosis, sharing this information may be the greatest gift you can give...to yourself, your child, and to them.
Peers. Seeing the cousins in a group or having the neighbors visiting in one evening may create major social issues, even if your child or teen may otherwise have a positive experience when it's 1:1 or a small group. Give your child every opportunity for social success by limiting who comes when, making sure your child knows the plan. and changing things if it appears as though the timing might not be right.
Food glorious food. Be aware of what’s being served on those platters and in those bowls. If your child is on a gluten-free or other restrictive diet, bring the foods that you child can eat and in the typical dishes or bowls, particularly if your child is younger. Now is not the time to introduce new foods and fancy ways to serve them.
Attire. That brand new dress or shirt or those fancy socks could cause sensory issues that ruin a holiday moment before it begins. Allow your child to dress as they prefer or introduce the "new attire" well before the official wearing, asking them if they want to “dress it up” a bit.
Music. If music is soothing or if Jingle Bells happens to be a favorite, play music as much as possible during the holidays. If attending holiday religious services is planned and if it's a new experience, a brief introduction is better than expecting your child to sit through two hours of services. Crowds, tight seating, sounds, smells ... each alone may trigger sensory and auditory overload, so anticipate. Arrive early to allow your child to see the environment. Sit in the back. Bring a snack. And leave when it’s clear that enough is enough.
Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and the Christmas tree. Lighting the Chanukah candles and the Kwanzaa feast can be a wonderful gatherings for family, but your child or teen may find these activities difficult. And keep in mind that the blinking lights and singing ornaments on the Christmas tree (or Chanukah bush) can also create problems and may trigger sensory overload.
Shopping. The mall with its crowds and loud noises are a recipe for a meltdown or resistance to even going. If the picture with Santa is important, find a garden shop, bookstore, or other smaller venue where Santa pictures are being taken. And if your child feels about Santa as many do about clowns (i.e. forget it), use photoshop to put them in the picture.
Schedules and routines. The holidays mean changes which can result in havoc for children and teens alike. This is also a time where therapies are on hiatus, creating even more need for structure and predictability. Prepare a visual schedule – with your child’s assistance if possible – to show the plans for the days and nights. And try to continue with some aspects of your child's therapies at home (another reason why ongoing communication with providers is essential). Preparation is key.
Flexibility. More important during the holidays than at any other time. Bedtimes can be pushed. Snacks can be expanded (unless there are dietary issues). Time spent on video games can be extended. Sleeping in their clothes is just fine. The key is monitoring your child and making adjustments accordingly. And listen to their wishes as these can be more important than anything in a box.
Gifts. If the expectations on Christmas morning exceed the pleasure, forgo it. Some children and teens find the pressure of opening gifts and then having to appear overjoyed more than they can handle. In fact, many prefer to open their gifts alone. Christmas Eve or Christmas evening after dinner work just fine too. And ask family and friends what's in those nicely-wrapped packages as gifts with sounds or requiring two hours of assembly can be meltdown-provoking. Same with your gifts.
The most important part of the holiday season is showing your child - based upon their personality, needs, expectations, and limitations - that the holidays can be fun and that you're listening to and watching for their cues. This will make things far more enjoyable for everyone and will bring you a little "ho, ho, ho" in the process. Happy Holidays...