Christmas can be a stressful time for anyone, whether Autistic or not. So you can imagine how difficult it may be for your Autistic child as they deal with the change in routine, the sensory overload and the unfamiliar faces.
Change in Routine
With the holidays approaching, you may find an influx of additional activities making their way into your family life. Shopping, parties and family visits are likely to encroach on your established routine during the month of December. For a child with Autism, throwing these kinds of wrenches in the works may disrupt their routine and test the limits of their flexibility.
Be sure to retain some “anchor” activities in your child’s life. These are regular events that your child can rely on such as meal times and bed times. Do your best to make sure these events occur at the same time of the day, every day. This way, even if the rest of the day seems chaotic, your child will have something familiar to expect during the day.
Create a visual schedule to illustrate upcoming activities. Go over this with your child before bed and in the morning, outlining the activities he or she will be participating in during the day. Keep the schedule with you to easily transition from one event to the next.
A simple and concise social story may work well to prepare your child for these changes. Look for stories that explain decorations, Christmas trees, sounds and, of course, Santa Clause and presents.
The holidays are typically a time for family and friends, some of which your child may not be familiar with.
Prepare your child by showing him or her pictures of relatives and friends, explaining who they are what their name is. This will help create some familiarity for your child so that actually seeing these people isn’t a shock or surprise.
Also, explain to relatives and friends if your child has any physical issues with hugging and kissing. Doing this beforehand is best as to avoid any confusion, hurt feelings or an uncomfortable situation for your child. For people that may not have a lot of contact with your child, you may want to give them a heads up if your child has any language or communication barriers.
Letting your family and friends know of any considerations and limitations not only helps prepare them for interactions with your child but also prevents your child from experiencing uncomfortable or unpleasant situations.
Not only does the Christmas season bring a change in routine and unfamiliar faces, but also bright décor, plunky music and a tree which should belong only outdoors but is, for some reason, brought inside where it doesn’t belong.
All this visual and auditory stimuli may be enough to cause your child to experience sensory overload. Your first priority in combating this struggle with the outside world is to create and provide a safe space for your child. This could mean a room in your house, or a friend or relative’s house, where your child can escape. This space should be quiet, private and feature familiar toys or devices that bring your child comfort.
If you are traveling or out-and-about, bring a bag of these toys or keep your tablet close with your child’s favorite shows downloaded onto it. If noises bother your child, you may consider getting noise-canceling earphones to help muffle the sound.
It’s hard to believe that the idea of unwrapping gifts may be stressful to a child but a child with Autism may have difficulty handling the surprise. The unknown nature of a present may give your child anxiety on Christmas morning.
You can help alleviate this stress by unwrapping the gifts beforehand. Depending on your child, you may choose to leave them unwrapped or simply unpackage any toys, place batteries in them, and re-wrap them. This way, when your child does remove the wrapping paper, the toy is ready to play with. There’s no waiting while tension builds.
If the thought of leaving out unwrapped gifts is difficult for you as a parent (which is completely understandable – that’s the magic of Christmas!), you can always label the gifts with the contents. This way, your child knows exactly what to expect and you get to watch them unwrap their gifts!