7 Tips for Navigating the Holidays

1) Let your child cope!

Most of our children perform various repetitive “stimming” behaviors. An increasing body of research is showing that these behaviors are useful and important to your child and his/her nervous system. So, when your child commences hand-flapping, asking the same question over and over, or lining up toy cars, allow your child to do this. In fact, it can be even more helpful if you join your child in these behaviors! Flap your own hands, or line up your own toys!

2) Celebrate your child!

Most of us dread our child behaving in a challenging way. We worry about it, we look for it, and we try to stop it as soon as it happens. Ironically, this puts all the focus on what you DON’T want from your child. If you don’t want your child to hit, for instance, focusing on getting your child not to hit actually creates more hitting. Instead celebrate your child every time they do something well. If your child sometimes hits, cheer wildly every time your child is gentle.

3) Explain in advance.

Before going on a trip or having a celebration: Explain to your child ahead of time (even if your child is non-verbal) what will happen and why it will be fun for him/her.

4) Give your family the heads-up.

If you are visiting family with your child, send them an email to explain what they can do to make the visit comfortable for you and your child. Explain why sudden loud noises might be problematic, or tell everyone the answer your child likes to hear when he or she asks over and over, “How fast does your car go?”

5) Designate a mellow room.

If you are going to someone else’s house with your child, designate, in advance, a calm room or space where your child can go to decompress once they begin to be overwhelmed by all of the commotion and sensory input that comprise most celebrations. Every so often take your child to this room and spend some time alone with him/her.

6) Mimic an outing without leaving your home!

Children on the autism spectrum will always do better when they are not over-stimulated by the many sights, sounds, smells, and unpredictable events of the outside world. You can create an experience in your home that you normally would go out for. For instance, instead of going to an evening parade with a festival of lights, you can put Christmas lights all around your house, turn off all the lights, and play Christmas music at a gentle volume. You may be concerned about depriving your child of a fun holiday experience, but keep in mind that when your child can’t digest the experience, they’re not having the fun experience you want. That’s why, if you can create a digestible version of the experience at home, your child can take in and enjoy the experience. By doing this, you are actually giving your child more, not less.

7) Take the holiday spirit home.

So often, we get caught up in the trappings of the holidays – the tree, the presents, the outings that have to go exactly as planned. It’s okay to arrange fun things, but remember that these are only trimmings. They aren’t the gift, they’re just the wrapping. The gift is your special child. The gift is sharing hope and sweetness with the people you love. Instead of using the holidays as a planning fest, use it to see the beauty in your child’s uniqueness. Use it to celebrate what your child can do, and use it to feel and encourage compassion for your child’s very different way of experiencing the world.