Implement these 3 steps to take the hectic out of the holidays!
With the excitement of the holidays, these times are usually full of unexpected events, disrupted routines and change. And from what we know about most children on the autism spectrum and with other neurological differences, unexpected and unstructured routines and change are a recipe for the perfect storm.
Implementing these 3 steps will significantly help your child cope and potentially thrive during the holidays. These steps will also help you better manage your stress levels. Keeping your stress in check is essential as your child will pick up on your stress and that will in turn increase his/her stress levels.
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare!
I cannot overstate preparation. Preparation can come in many forms.
My first suggestion is for you to think about what has worked well in previous holiday situations and where have you run into trouble. When you are looking at preparation, start with the areas you know are predictively problematic for your child.
Next, use visual supports such as social stories, calendars and visual pictures to help prepare your child for what to expect during the holidays. You can use these visual supports to explain who will be visiting, what types of activities will be happening and the steps involved in each activity.
You can also prepare by practicing and role-playing common scenarios that may occur during the holidays such as what to say or how to act when you get a gift you do not like. Or, types of conversations that are appropriate to have with family and friends. You can make a list of safe topics your child can talk to others about and topics they should stay clear from. You can also practice turn taking for when it's time to open gifts.
Depending on your child, you might have to figure out how much preparation time you want to give them prior to an event. For example, if your child is more anxious in nature, s/he might do better with only a day or two of warning. Alternatively, if your child is slow to accept new things, you may want to have a calendar for the entire month so you can count down the days together so your child has loads of time to get used to the upcoming event or activity.
If your holiday festivities involve traveling, you can use Social Stories to prepare your child for what to expect on the long drive in the car. Or, if you are taking a plane, what will happen when you are at the airport, such as waiting in line ups, going through security, and being on the plane. Do the same thing if your child is taking a train and needs to negotiate being in a busy train station. If you know your child will have some challenges in a busy environment such as an airport or a confined area such as an airplane, let your airline know your child has special needs and they will make accommodations for you. Be as detailed as you need to be in letting them know your child's needs so they can put plans in place to best support your child. If you are concerned that the airport is going to be too overwhelming for your child, some people recommend doing a practice run where you take your child to the airport just so they can experience what it will be like in advance. Lastly, have preferred toys and games and lots of favourite snacks on hand to entertain your child on any long journey.
2. Maintain some routines and sameness!
There will be disruption in routines and some unexpected events no matter how much you prepare.
Therefore, keep some routines that are consistent each day. For example, if you have a structured bedtime routine, continue with that routine during the holidays whether you are at home or away.
It is especially important that you also prioritize healthy sleep and nutrition routines during this time as this will increase your child's capacity to manage change and all the transitions that come with this time of year. Make sure you have preferred snacks and foods on hand for meals as being around new foods and smells and eating with larger groups of people may be very stressful for your child. The holidays are likely not a good time to encourage your child to try new foods or change his/her diet.
3. Have an escape plan!
You know your child best. You know your child's triggers and sensitivities. You know what environments are best for your child. You know when too much noise and other sensory stimulation will take your child to the overwhelm level.
Therefore, prepare in advance what you and/or your child will do when overwhelm starts to take over and your child needs to get away for a break.
The first thing you can do is schedule regular quiet time periods throughout your busy days. Find a quiet and calm space where your child can chill out for a while to calm down and/or recharge. If you are away from home, this can be as simple as putting a blanket over a living room chair or small desk where there are some blankets and pillows available to snuggle into. Ensure you have favourite quiet activities for your child to do in his/her chill out space.
You can also have a plan such as a break card or signal that your child is starting to become more anxious, overstimulated or upset that signifies s/he needs a break so you can support this as quickly as possible. The most important part is to have the plan prepared in advance so when things start to become too much, you can easily access a break.
Happy holidays from my family to yours!
And as always, be the hero you are meant to be!