The holiday season is often filled with shopping, unique food, and special time spent with distant loved ones. For many families, this is no big deal — chaotic, but manageable. But for families of children with autism and/or special sensory needs (especially sensory sensitivities), these events may often be met with dread, stress, and major meltdowns.
Here are some tips for helping children with special needs survive the holidays:
1. Minimize kids’ time spent in stores and malls. It’s a jungle out there right now — stressed out crowds, lots of overwhelming sounds, weird smells, long lines, and more kid-tempting merchandise than any other time of year. If at all possible, avoid sensory overload and leave the kids at home or with a sitter while you do your shopping. You could devote one entire day to getting all your in-store stuff done. Or, better yet, do your shopping online. There’s still time to ship before the holiday and you can avoid the madness. If you’re looking for kiddie gift ideas, check out MamaOT’s list of Holiday Gift Ideas for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. And if you’re not sure what to get for the child with special sensory needs, check out this great list of holiday gift ideas from AbbyPediatricOT.
2. Prep your kids. All the people and events involved in holiday festivities can be overwhelming for kids in general, but this is especially true for kids with autism/sensory difficulties. One of the best things you can do is prep them for what to expect. You can familiarize them with who they will see by going through photos with them online (yay, Facebook) or creating a special photo book (nothing fancy) so they can look through it with you in prep for the big day. You can make your own version of a Social Story by helping your child put together a basic book (pieces of paper stapled together) with stick figures and descriptions of what will or may happen in different aspects of the upcoming festivities. If you’ll be traveling a long distance, you can prep them for what will be involved with transportation and include that in your social story (going to the gas station, standing in line, security checks, special seat belts, cabin pressure, loud railroad noises, etc.). The more you can prep them for what’s to come, the better.
3. Prep your family. If you’ll be spending time with family and loved ones who may not be in the loop with your child’s needs, you may want to fill them in a bit so they know what to expect and won’t be offended if little Johnny cries when Aunt Marge tries to give him a big hug and kiss or sweet Susie won’t eat Grandma’s homemade ham. This can be a touchy subject for some families, especially if they don’t feel comfortable letting others know their young child has a diagnosis yet (such as autism). Only share as much as you are comfortable. All you need to say is that Johnny is more comfortable with high fives than hugs and kisses (which you know is due to tactile sensitivities), or Susie is still learning how to try new foods (which you know is due to oral sensitivities), and leave it at that. But please make sure you communicate something so your sweet family gathering doesn’t turn into a day of raised eyebrows and hurt feelings.
4. Maintain routines. Many children with autism/sensory challenges have major difficulties when it comes to change, especially changes in routine, diet, or sleep schedule. Their bodies and brains often don’t adapt as well, and this may result in over-arousal, disorganized behavior, increased sensory seeking/avoiding behaviors, and/or meltdowns. If your child is one who heavily relies on routines to maintain their sense of organization and emotional regulation, then you know what I mean. So amidst all the school plays, errands, and travels, try your very best to keep your most critical routines as much the same as possible. If your child follows a special sensory diet created by an occupational therapist, then make sure he or she is engaging in those special sensory activities as regularly as possible in order to maintain their level of physical and emotional regulation.
5. Maintain diet. I mentioned diet in the previous point, but it’s so important that I’m giving it its own section. Food fuels our bodies and our brains. Some bodies and brains can continue to function in an optimal (if not slightly hyper or lethargic) level despite temporary changes in diet such as increased sugar, fat, red food dyes, wheat, or carbonation. Other bodies, however, get totally thrown off kilter when holiday foods are introduced, and it can put kids with sensory challenges into a whole new level of struggle. You know your child and what his or her tolerance is to changes in diet, so it’s ultimately up to you on how to navigate the holiday offerings of cookies, fudge, marshmallows, candy canes, etc. But just be aware that holiday foods have the potential to greatly influence and alter a child’s ability to function in their day-to-day, especially if they have special sensory or dietary needs.
6. Bring your own food. If you know food will be an issue for your child, consider providing food you know he or she will eat. Loud, stressful holiday family gatherings are NOT the time to try and introduce new foods to your selective eater. This is why it’s important to at least minimally prep your family in advance of mealtime, so they won’t make a big fuss about why your child isn’t eating what everyone else is eating. If they’re eating chicken nuggets while everyone else is enjoying prime rib and mashed potatoes with gravy, that’s fine! Again, you know your child best, so do what you think will work. But please don’t stress about how they will respond to all those new foods. They don’t have to eat them.
7. Make a plan for “escape”. What are you going to do if and when your child has had enough sensory input for one day and is teetering on the point of meltdown (or has already zoomed past that point into total meltdown)? If you know where you will be on the big day, try to create a “safe space” where your child can retreat before he or she gets to the point of explosion. It could be a spare bedroom with video games/movies, a small tent or fort with pillows/blankets/preferred toys, or even the car or garage. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, what are you going to do if your sensory seeker has been cooped up in a car or airplane and is now expected to sit still as a guest in someone’s house all day. Not gonna happen! Try to find ways to give your seeker opportunities for vestibular input (spinning, swinging), proprioception/heavy work (running, crashing, carrying heavy things), and/or tactile experiences (play dough, fidget toys) before they end up in trouble. Like I said, the more communication you can have with family in advance, the better chance you have at successfully navigating your time together.
8. Have a support team. Enlist at least one other person or family to be on your “team” during your gathering. This could simply be someone who makes sure the “safe space” is all ready to go, or it could be an adult or older kid whom your child trusts and is able to hang out with while you try to eat and socialize. Whatever you do, don’t do it alone!
There are so many aspects of the holiday season that can be difficult for families of children with special needs that I couldn’t possibly cover all of them in one post. So please visit these other helpful links on similar topics if you are looking for more information:
- Special Needs Parenting: 10 Tips for Holiday Stress Reduction, from GoodTherapy.org
- Surviving the Holidays with Your Sanity Intact, from One Place for Special Needs
- Downloadable Holiday Survival Guide for Families with Special Needs, from AbilityPath.org
Happy holidays to you and your family!