Tips to Help Your Child with ASD Have a Happy Holiday Season

The holiday season is here! And of course, that means festive decorations, blinking lights, Christmas carols and trees, Santa, presents, family gatherings, large holiday meals and more! While these are why most of us love this time of year, they are also the reason this season can cause confusion and stress for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

But don’t fret! A happy holiday season is possible, and these tips from Caity Russ, the Board-Certified Behavior Analyst Supervisor at Mindful Steps, will help you achieve your seasonal goals this year and beyond.

5 Holiday Stressors for Kids with ASD and How to Handle them

  1. Decorations can be a trigger for children with ASD or other sensory issues. Because the decorations only come out once a year, they can confuse children for a number of reasons. They may not understand why the décor is changing and making the house look different. They can be visually or auditorily stimulating (especially Christmas lights, trains or snow globes), causing distractions or the children may want to play with or touch them.

The best thing you can do to help your child adapt is to prepare them and start small. Begin by talking about the holiday season and telling them about the festive decorations before you bring anything out or put anything up. It may even help to bring out pictures of past holidays so they can see the decorations in the house. You can also engage your child in the decorating process by letting them choose a couple of decorations from the store or even making some at home to hang up. Additionally, start with one item or one area of the house and add to it as the season progresses. 

  1. The Christmas tree is often hard for a child with ASD to understand or feel comfortable with. A Christmas tree often takes up space, forcing furniture to be moved or adjusted, which in itself can cause stress. Add to that tree lights and ornaments and you may cause your child a great deal of frustration.

So, just like with your home décor, start small when it comes to your Christmas tree. Perhaps, this year, you just hang a picture of a tree or put a felt tree up on the wall, so that it is unobtrusive and does not take up any of your child’s usual space. The child could have fun playing with and decorating the tree with felt ornaments and other stick on decorations. If that goes well, maybe add a tabletop tree. Only add a few decorations at a time and explain why you are putting this tree in the house. Also, make sure to discuss not playing with ornaments or lights. They will be attractive to most children so be sure they are out of reach. The biggest thing you can do is modify your tree and decorations to what works for your family.

  1. Presents can present myriad issues. The biggest problem often comes with the waiting. Children with autism spectrum disorder can have a hard time understanding why there are presents that they can’t open right away. On the flip side, some kids may not even be interested in the box because they can’t see what is in it and can’t understand the concept of opening the gift.

So again, do what works best for you. If your child can understand and handle a gift-opening process, create one. Allow him/her to open the first gift, followed by the siblings and other family members. If waiting is too hard, consider opening all gifts together or taking breaks between presents. Do what works best for your children’s happiness and comfort level.

If your child needs assistance actually removing the wrapping paper, use a lot of prompting of hand over hand assistance at first and try to fade that back with each present.

  1. Family gatherings and holiday meals can be overwhelming. If you decide to travel or visit grandma’s for the holidays this year, take your child’s preferred or comfort items with you. If they enjoy coloring, bring coloring books and crayons. Talk to your host and see if you can create or give the child a safe space where they can take breaks if they get too overwhelmed. It may be a better option for your family to host any holiday meals or get-togethers. This allows your child to have their own space and feel safe and “normal.”

A lot of families just skip holiday gatherings and that’s OK, but if it is something you really wish to work on, especially getting your child to sit down for a full meal, that is something that can be worked on throughout the year in applied behavior analysis therapy. It may take months of practice or more to get a child with ASD to sit through a whole meal.

Part of the holidays is often a large, family meal. However, those foods being served may not be a part of your child’s customary and comfortable diet. Be sure to bring food for them to eat. And if he likes to eat his chicken nuggets while sitting on the couch instead of the table, consider allowing it! It can keep the holidays happy for all!

Additionally, a visual schedule might help, as well. You could break the day down as much as needed and remember to use first/then language to go along with the visuals. “First, we open presents. Then we eat breakfast. Then we go to grandmas. Then grandma gives you a present. Then we eat. Then we come home.” Having a set timeline can be a sense of pattern and calm for a child with ASD. As always, you know your child best so do what you can without disrupting their whole world.

  1. Visiting Santa may not be a happy time and can often cause anxiety. After all, Santa is a stranger, and we spend so much of our time teaching our children stranger dangers. The whole experience can also be overstimulating as well. If you are able to visit a Santa this year (with COVID-19, a number of events may be canceled), the best thing you can do is look for a sensory-friendly event or a Santa experience where you can make an appointment. It will cut down your wait time. The sensory events often have crafts to give kids something to do while they wait their turn. Again, a visual schedule and/or talking through the whole process will help your child prepare. “First, we go to the mall. Then we’ll make a craft. Then we’ll wait in line. Then you’ll meet Santa. Then we go home.”

Talk to your provider about writing a social story or creating a video model, as well. This can help tell the whole story with people they know and in a way your child can understand. The therapists at Mindful Steps have experience in creating these social stories and videos with great results.

Preparing as much as possible but also being prepared to be flexible is the most important thing to ensure your whole family has a good time celebrating together – even if that means creating your own traditions. You can decorate cookies instead of the house. You can do a present a day leading up to Christmas and after. You can do your own thing without extended family. Don’t feel pressured to push your child. Have a happy holiday season and make the most of it together! However, if you do have goals you wish to attain and need help achieving them, Mindful Steps can help!

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