The holiday season seems to start earlier and earlier every year, barely getting through Halloween before snowman inflatables are on display at Target. It’s something many kids to look forward to (and adults too!), but this time of year can also bring on stress. It’s especially overwhelming for children on the autism spectrum, even if they love some of the elements that make up Christmas or Hanukkah.
Your child doesn’t deserve to miss out on the joy due to some challenges, and nor does your family. How can you bring the magic into your family, while still keeping your child safe and happy? It might mean emphasizing different parts of the holidays or celebrating in a whole new way.
If you’re looking for answers, here are five potential sensory struggles, plus BCBA-approved ideas for how to turn them around and add holiday cheer for your household.
Download the Hopebridge Autism-Friendly Holiday Guide
Hopebridge created a special holiday guide packed full of easy-to-use resources for those looking to make this season more inclusive and accessible for the autism community.
5 Ways to Make the Holidays Autism-Friendly
- Festive lights and décor
Twinkling lights, giant singing Santa displays, evergreen scents permeating the house, bright candles on the menorah, and candy canes hanging from a tree that is suddenly sprouting from your living room. Even if your family does not celebrate Christmas, these sights, sounds and smells are sure to surround you in the community this time of year. It’s natural for sensory overload to come into play. Even if a child with autism doesn’t have sensory issues, the sudden change in environment could spark caution or a meltdown. To ease the transition into a winter wonderland, consider allowing your child to choose the decorations for your home. Have him or her help trim the tree or decide where to place the holiday items, if that makes sense for your family. Consider an electronic menorah or Kinara instead of open flames on the candles. Avoid flashing lights, sparkling ornaments and décor with sounds, if that’s what bothers your child … or add more, if that’s what excites them!
- Holiday shopping
For those touched by ASD, shopping outings can be tough any time of year. The holidays escalate the stimuli. It’s a good thing we live in an age of online shopping where Amazon can be your best friend if you need something in a hurry … but what if you want that one-of-a-kind gift from the neighborhood boutique or there’s a great in-store discount available at the mall? Or maybe you just want to experience the fun of shopping? In those cases, let your child know ahead of time where you’re going and what to expect. Prepare a schedule and consider sharing photos of the place you’re going. Also decide who to shop for in advance … it may not be realistic to buy for everyone your child wants, so it’s important to set expectations before you leave the house. Avoid peak times in an effort to limit the mall’s chaos. When you’re leaving the house, anticipate the environment and bring noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses or a comfort item as backup.
- Receiving presents
Opening presents around other family members can be overstimulating, especially if there are a lot of gifts or other kids involved. What’s under the wrapping paper can pose also challenges for individuals with ASD, and you may not know how your child will react. If possible, talk to family and friends in advance to share his or her interests and anything that might unknowingly cause distress. This is a happy time, so set up the unwrapping experience in a way that is comfortable for your child. Maybe that means opening one at a time and spacing them out a little. Or take some home to open privately. Don’t feel pressured to do this in front of the gift-giver. You can always explain the situation and follow up with a thank-you card to show appreciation.
- Cold weather
Here’s a tough one that isn’t confined to the holiday season. Your child may not like the way cold weather clothing feels as much as summer styles, have temperature regulation challenges, or maybe loves snow so much that he darts outside without proper preparation. To combat this, explain why winter clothes are important in chilly weather (if appropriate). Have him or her pick out the accessories to make it more enjoyable. Consider finding a way to motivate and practice wearing the coat, hat and boots before heading outside. The reinforcer could be the reward of a cookie or a special activity. Laying clothes out the night before or using a visual guide can also help prepare for the weather. If you want even more ideas, we recently covered tips to enjoy Thanksgiving for kids with autism. Many of those still apply now and to other holiday parties throughout the year.
- Meeting Santa
It’s funny how we constantly tell our kids not to talk to strangers, yet when Christmas comes around, we encourage them to sit on a stranger’s lap and share their wishes, all while we snap a photo. It’s no wonder there are so many images of kids itching to get away! Add crowded malls, long lines and festive music, and it’s a nightmare for some who have ASD. Thankfully, many places now offer opportunities for sensory-friendly Santa experiences. These tend to be more intimate, judgement-free zones that lack the elaborate décor and music found in typical settings. Search local entertainment calendars and autism organization websites to see if there are suitable options in your area. For more ideas, check out our blog post on how to introduce your child to Santa in a relaxed setting.
Need more assistance with the holidays? The applied behavior analysis (ABA) and outpatient therapy teams at Hopebridge are always willing to help. Engage your BCBA to discuss ways to help your child during the holidays and beyond.
Now tell us…what do your kiddos look forward to this time of year? Let us know on social media if your family has a special holiday tradition that the rest of us should try!