The holidays can be a very stressful time for everyone, but they are particularly stressful for children who have autism.
“The holidays can be a very overstimulating time for children on the spectrum,” said Pam Modugno, OTR/L, a pediatric occupational therapist at Bacharach. “There are so many activities such as decorating, shopping and travel, which can cause a child to become overstimulated. A variety of things can happen when children become overstimulated, but usually the child either has a tantrum or completely shuts down.”
To prevent overstimulation, keep your child’s sleep, food, activity level, and rest regulated. Prior to events have the child perform activities to help calm and organize their sensory system such as: yoga, breathing, jumping, wall pushups, jumping jacks, etc.
Following tips from Pam about how to help your child through the holidays:
- Gradually decorate for the holidays—Some autistic children get upset when things in the house are moved, so to help them acclimate to the change decorate your house a little at a time and let them be involved in the process.
- Make stops when traveling —Stop every hour and a half to two hours to provide your child with movement and sensory input. Also, letting your child pack a backpack filled with whatever toys, snacks or games they want will help them feel comfortable and occupied during the trip.
- Have a coping plan—If you are traveling make sure you speak to family and friends about a quiet place for your child to go to get space or to be alone. It is important that they have a place to escape to if they become overwhelmed, even if they just need to take a walk outside.
- Tell them what is happening—Make sure you tell your child where they are going, who they are going to see and what they will be doing. This will help them be more comfortable with what is going on. Some children do well with a visual schedule, or seeing pictures, videos of upcoming events. You may also want to make the child a social story or do role playing prior to events.
- Let them enjoy their holiday—If they don’t want to open all their gifts or if they need to be alone, let them. If they just want to play with the ribbons on the presents don’t pressure them to open their gifts – just let them enjoy the holiday activities. For the touch sensitive child don’t insist on wearing uncomfortable clothing. If your child has food sensitivities bring their own food to the holiday party.
“One way to enjoy holiday activities as a family is to drive around and look at Christmas lights because you can always leave if the lights are overstimulating,” said Pam. “Other fun activities for your child at home may include: reading holiday books, watching holiday movies, listening to holiday music, baking cookies, or even eating cookies. The most important thing is to enjoy the holidays together as a family.”