Holiday Cheers and Autism Fears

Holiday Cheers and Autism Fears

Isn’t Christmas magical? The lights, the music, the crowds and parties! But oh, to a child with autism, those are exactly the scary, overstimulating things that set off fear and uncertainty. We spend so much time creating functional routines for ourselves and our children, and we relish the divergence from those routines, but that routine creates predictability for a child with autism. So what do we do when the very things we love about the holidays are the same things that are destructive to our little ones? We can’t bear to give up our traditions entirely, but balance is hard. Here are a few tips for navigating the holidays with a little less drama:
1. Keep a space that has little to no change in it. Preferably the child’s space, in their room or play space or preferred corner. Decorations, moving furniture to accommodate a tree, adding new lights and sounds are all a part of our tradition, but these changes just don’t feel safe to the little ones who are still figuring out the normal sensory world. Leave a safe space untouched, and when over stimulation starts, you can lead them to someplace familiar and soothing.

Six year old boy with tangled Christmas tree lights.
2. Maintain a familiar routine as best as possible. Holiday parties, school breaks, and visitors, all represent schedule changes that are hard to adapt to. You really can’t change some of those things. But over-scheduling will only further aggravate the over stimulation above. Pick a few parties that are most important to attend, get a sitter for those that might be too much, and prep accordingly. Set up time boundaries and most of all, keep the bedtime routine as closely as humanly possible!
3. Don’t force it. Don’t force the hugs and greetings, don’t force the mall Santa and lap sitting and hugs. Let you friends and family know that you have to keep boundaries like bedtime and they have to keep boundaries like distance and respect. If your child is indicating they can handle it, that is wonderful, but be prepared to honor their “NO.”

We certainly can’t cancel the holidays in order to accommodate autism. And we really shouldn’t. Coping skills are learned in the process of navigating disruptions. So you get to find your own balance between honoring traditions and accommodating special needs. Work with your child to have the best holiday memories possible.

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