Handling The Holidays

If you’re a parent of a child with autism, I don’t need to go through the list of reasons why the holidays are stressful for you and your child. There are several things you can do to support your child with autism and take care of yourself in the process. Let’s talk about those family gatherings.

Prepare your child
Whether you are hosting a big group at your house or going to someone else’s, there are a lot of extra people around that come bearing extra noise and decorations full of visual stimulation.

  • If you know your child tends to get overwhelmed by this, having a plan in place of where he or she can go for a break can be helpful.
  • If this is not your home, try having a talk with the host about this ahead of time. If the host or hosts have children of their own, chances are they understand the need for a little separate space (diagnosis or not) and can probably find another space for your child to take a break if need be.
  • Arm yourself with calming activities. Have something for your child to do in that separate space. If videos or music is the thing, bring headphones to go along with it.
  • If your child uses a visual schedule, you can create some structure around the gathering. It is likely not part of your child’s regular routine, so establishing a little more structure can be helpful.

Preparing others
If you are worried about your child’s behaviors or the behavior of others around your child, finding ways to prepare them and educate them can help ease your stress. Things you may want to educate other guests or family members about:

  • Your child’s need for space.

    If your child does not like physical touch or hugging, let everyone know ahead of time.

  • The best ways to interact with your child.

    Have you ever noticed how adults interact with children by firing off a bunch of questions? Probably not the best approach with any child, but a child with limited language will likely struggle with this. If your child is able to answer some questions, you might try giving family members a list of those questions your child can answer, such as “How old are you?”, “What’s your favorite color?”, etc. It could be great practice.

    Another tip to give your family and other guests is to use clear, concise language. If a child already has trouble processing information, loading a bunch of extra words in there isn’t going to help. You can explain this to them and suggest using as few words as possible. For instance, “Hi Bella! It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you. How are you? How is school?” could be broken up into pieces, waiting for responses. If giving instructions, “Come here” is clear and concise, while “Aiden, can you please come over here and sit by me?” might be too much.

  • If there are specific behaviors you do not want your family members reacting to or providing attention for, let them know. Perhaps you know that your child’s hand flapping has become attention maintained, and you’ve been working on not providing attention for it. Relay this to your family and tell them why. A behavior plan doesn’t need to fall apart just because there are other people around.

Dealing with others
Probably one of the most stressful parts about being around family is that they are your family and often give unsolicited advice.

  • If comments like, “he just needs a quick swat on the bottom” sound familiar, try educating them about how behavior works. If you’ve had ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) services, then you know that it can be a little counter-intuitive to the discipline many of us grew up with. Explaining to your father, sister, mother-in-law, etc. that your child is engaging in behaviors for a reason and why you handle it a certain way, might help them to understand.
  • Involving your extended family members regularly in your child’s ABA therapy or parent education can be extremely beneficial to your child and help mitigate some of this at family gatherings.
  • If you feel like saying, “I’ve got this”, you might also want to highlight some of the improvements your child has made since they last saw you.
  • You might even try explaining to them why the advice or commentary is not helpful and how it hurts you. Doing some of this in the middle of dinner is not necessarily the best time. If you can have these conversations ahead of time, it should help you feel more prepared, easing some of your stress.

As with most issues surrounding autism, preparation is key. Taking some time to think about what your child needs and what bothers you the most in these situations can help you develop a plan. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries and tell other family members what you need. This is your child and you know best what works for your immediate family. Taking the time to have some difficult conversations and preparing, can help ensure a less stressful time for both you and your child. That way, you can focus on the importance of whatever you are celebrating and, hopefully, have a happier holiday.