It’s time for family gatherings, games, singing, staying up late and eating unfamiliar foods – all the things that can really challenge a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). When you hope to make celebrations fun for everyone, a little advanced planning goes a very long way. Dr. Jay Dobos at The Center for Advanced Pediatrics is here with guidance to help your whole family have a happy holiday.
Create a calendar for your child. Include family parties, cookie making, shopping, gift wrapping, religious services, and special holiday outings. Being able to see what’s happening each day will help relieve anxiety about all the hustle and bustle this time of year.
Involve your child.
Ask your child often if they are comfortable with everything that is happening. Ask how they feel about decorations, lights and music, visits to parties or events. Honor their reactions, likes and dislikes by making changes when needed.
Decorate step by step
Familiar surroundings give comfort to a child with autism, so suddenly changing the whole house can be disturbing and upsetting. Go slowly. If you have photos from previous years, show them to your child and plan your decorating schedule. On your calendar, mark what decorations will go up when. Assemble or install your tree one day, and then add the lights the next. The following day, add your ornaments and then tinsel on the last day.
Practice gracious gift receiving.
If your child has asked for something they will not receive, tell your child immediately and with kindness. Role play with your child about gift opening. Talk about waiting your turn and not opening another person’s gifts. Together, brainstorm ways to react if your child receives a gift they do not like, such as just saying, “Thank you very much.”
Talk about who you’ll see.
Show your child photographs of everyone they will see and on which days, explaining who everyone is. Together, you can assemble a collage of guests for each gathering, so your child knows exactly whom to expect when.
Prepare a safe space at every event.
If you’re hosting, ask your child where they’d like to hang out if they need to “take a breath” at any time during the gathering and make sure that space stays private, with no coats or sleeping children there. At outside events, ask about a quiet place before the party and show your child that space when you arrive. When you notice your child becoming anxious or upset, guide them to the space and help them soothe.
Talk to your family and friends.
Chat with hosts and other guests about any accommodations you think your child may need to enjoy the event, be it that safe space, particular foods, hugging, conversation topics or more. If adults balk at making simple change, consider whether it’s really worth it to attend a gathering where your child is not cherished.
When you have a child with ASD, simply preparation and planning can make this a happy holiday season. If you have any questions about your child’s health, just send a message through our patient portal and we’ll be happy to answer any concerns.