Sleigh Bells, Lights, and Autism

Olga Resendes

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be stressful for families, but even more so for children with autism.

Children on the autism spectrum rely on structure and routine. The holidays and all it brings – from parties and decorations to family gatherings and last-minute shopping trips – can be especially unsettling.

They may be overwhelmed by the excess of lights, sights, sounds, and smells during the holidays. This distress can often impact the entire family.

Maintaining your child’s current structure and routine may not always be possible during the holidays. But there are ways to help reduce your child's anxiety while keeping the joys of the season for the family.

The key is to prepare your child for these changes. Provide early cues of what will be taking place during the holidays. For some, this might require a detailed explanation of exactly what will and will not occur at each event, through words, pictures, or both.

Follow these tips to make the holidays more fun and less stressful for everyone:

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a problem that affects a child’s nervous system and growth and development. It usually shows up during a child’s first 3 years of life. Some children with ASD seem to live in their own world. Learn more about the causes and symptoms of ASD.

  • Share visiting plans. If you’ll be visiting relatives or friends, tell your child in advance where you’re going, who will be there, what you’ll do while you’re there, and when you plan to leave. If you’re hosting, tell them which relatives or friends will be visiting. It’s also a great idea to designate a quiet area in advance. Let your child know where it is so if it becomes too overwhelming, there is a place to relax.
  • Plan your shopping. Shopping with a child who has autism spectrum disorder may present its own set of challenges. During the holiday rush, stores are overcrowded, decorated and noisy. That can make matters even more difficult. Be sure you have a plan in place! Don’t roam the stores trying to decide what to buy. Instead, make a list of items to buy in advance.  Keeping the trip short and organized will help minimize the chance your child will become overwhelmed.
  • Choose decorations carefully. Holiday decorations inside the house, including bright and blinking lights, wreaths, trees, candles, and stacks of presents can be a concern. As parents, you know best what your child enjoys and what might be overwhelming. It’s important to remember that your child with autism will not have a higher tolerance just because it’s the holidays.
  • Prepare siblings. Make siblings aware of how stressful this season can be for their brother or sister. Before the holiday activities begin, make a point to remind your children of their sibling's sensory issues, such as communication difficulties, low frustration tolerance, and likes and dislikes. It’s also a great opportunity to share your family's strategy for avoiding potential problems and to discuss what to do if your best efforts are unsuccessful.
  • Set clear and concrete expectations. Outline and review how your child is expected to behave in advance. Don’t assume they know. Being proactive is key. Set the stage for success by being concrete and specific about your child's behavioral expectations.
  • Identify triggers. With higher functioning children with autism, discuss possible trigger situations in advance, and have a plan to cope. Ask your child to participate in the process. That will help a child feel more comfortable with the plan and be able to self-manage better.
  • Expect surprises. Changes, whether planned or unplanned should be expected. You and your child should be prepared to handle those surprises. Preparing for the "what if's" in advance can help to avoid behavioral challenges or difficulties. Social stories are often used as a helpful tool to help your child deal with the "what ifs" of the holiday season.
  • Reinforcement: Provide various forms of reinforcement when you notice them coping and managing their behavior during the holidays. Reinforcement such as praise, spending one-on-one time together or doing something special, may differ for each child.

We often put pressure on ourselves to have the “perfect” holiday. But that isn’t realistic. This year, try to remember what’s important. The holidays are a time to cherish one another and bask in the joy of being together.

Whether it's scaling back or starting new traditions, celebrate in a way that makes the most sense for your family.

We wish you all the happiest of holidays.

For more information about Bradley Hospital's Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, please visit our website.

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