With the holidays approaching, parents of children/teens with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, sensory issues or similar needs know these occasions can be nightmares in the making. Here are eight things to consider to help make them memorable for all the right reasons.
1. Visiting. If family and friends will be visiting, make sure your child knows who's coming and when using a visual chart, calendar, or countdown timer to help them prepare. If there will be new faces and it's possible to get some photos, do so.
Be sure your child/teen knows they can go to their room, play a video game, or other quiet or solo activities when they need it or when you see that they do. Short periods of time in social situations always work best and expectations should be reasonable.
Avoid insisting that they greet people at the door or remain at the table throughout a meal. Visits from same-age or young cousins or neighborhood peers may create issues as 1:1 situations or very small groups often work best. These novel situations and settings can be triggers for behavioral issues, so allow them the flexibility they need and be prepared to adapt.
If you're heading to visit others, keep the visits short. Preparation is key, and if it appears that it isn't a good day to make the trip, reschedule. Better to go when there's a higher likelihood for a positive experience, avoiding angst for you and issues for your child.
2. Attire. That new shirt or dress and those holiday-inspired socks may create sensory issues that can ruin the day before it begins. Either allow your child/teen to dress in comfortable and familiar clothes or introduce the new items well before the holidays. Better yet...ask them if they'd like to dress up their standard clothes a bit. Familiar and well-worn clothes can make a big difference.
3. Food. Pay close attention to what's being served or is sitting out for all to enjoy. If gluten-free or other dietary limitations exist, bring your food with you. Nothing will ruin a visit faster than your child eating something they should not and learning about it afterward.
4. Music. If music is soothing, start the holiday music now. If attending holiday services is the plan (and many include choirs and live music), introduce your child to this environment well before Christmas Eve. Crowds, tight seating, sounds, smells...all can be sensory and auditory triggers, plus an expectation that they'll sit through a two-hour service may be a losing proposition. Sit in the back. Bring a snack. Have earphones. Be sure there's familiar music on your/their iphone. And when it appears as though they've had enough, leave.
5. Shopping. The mall during the holidays can be a meltdown trigger on steroids which is a great reason to shop local (i.e. small stores). If a picture with Santa is important, visit a garden shop or local bookstore where the environment is far more manageable. And if your child feels about Santa the way many do about clowns (i.e. forget it), use photoshop to add him to photos for family and friends.
6. Gifts. If the expectations for Christmas morning or nightly Chanukah gift-giving exceeds the realities, forgo it. Many children and teens experience enormous stress associated with opening gifts, feeling pressure to act or appear a certain way when people are watching them. For many, anxiety not anticipation is the reality.
If grandparents bring nicely-wrapped gifts that require an hour to put together, find this out beforehand as this is another behavioral trigger. Allow your child/teen to open their gifts when they appear ready and if family or friends don't understand, you can make this a learning moment at another time. Better to delay than to create a set-up for trouble.
7. Schedules & routines. The holidays = changes to the familiar including no school and often no therapies and supports. Work with your child to create a visual schedule and do as much advance planning as possible. Ask your child's therapists for recommendation for at-home strategies that can maintain the work being done in sessions. And be sure to have information from them about their availability or lack thereof should immediate needs emerge. Preparation here is key.
8. Flexibility. Along with changes in routines, the holidays are also time to push bedtimes later, allow for snacks that are often off-limits (except for dietary issues), and sleeping in the living room while watching movies is fine. Everyone needs a chance to decompress a bit over the holidays and sometimes the simplest changes can make a big difference.
The most important part of the holidays, whether Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or otherwise, is helping everyone make them memorable...and in a good way. This means knowing your child's abilities and limitations and using them to help guide your family's plans.
So when you're sitting in the back with a snack, bring one for yourself too.