For most of us the holidays bring feelings of excitement and joy, despite which holiday we celebrate. Often, we assume that everyone feels the same way. However, that is not always the case. For children who have Autism, sensory processing disorders, or executive functioning disorders and their families, the holidays may come with changes that can cause anxiety or stress. This includes major changes such as deviations in schedules and routines, decorations that can cause sensory overload (lights, music, fireworks), and spending time with family and friends who may not be familiar to the child’s routine. There are many ways to improve the overall enjoyment of the holidays and reduce the stress and anxiety. Some helpful holiday tips include planning ahead, preparing the child, being mindful of decorations, and communicating with family.
Planning for the holidays requires extra time, but will bring benefit in the end. This can include creating visual schedules for various holiday events which may include shopping, visiting Santa, dinner at a family member’s home, and community events. A visual schedule helps the child know what to expect when out of his/her normal routine. Additionally, allowing extra time for holiday shopping and breaks can be very beneficial for children. Around the holidays there are new sights and sounds which may be overstimulating. When going to various holiday events, creating a “break” kit can allow children to self soothe. Items for this kit may include fidget toys, sensory games, noise reducing headphones, or bubbles.
Preparing children for holiday expectations is monumental in helping them to cope with the stress and anxiety they may experience. Making a social story to explain what might happen and how they can deal with it better prepares them for upcoming events. Gifts under the tree bring excitement and temptation. Talking with these children about waiting to open gifts and doing a visual countdown will help to avoid early unwrapping and provide a time concept of when they can open them. Speaking with children about where they will be going, what they will be doing, and the people they will be seeing provides children with a sense of what to expect. It is important to remember that despite preparing them ahead of time, they may still become overwhelmed or require a break. A good strategy is to practice how to take breaks when needed to calm down if a situation becomes too overwhelming.
Remembering that decorations can be immense and sudden in change. Bright, flashing lights, as well as music can be overstimulating to these children. A sudden change in decoration from their expected norm and environment can be difficult for them; therefore, putting decorations up gradually helps children to adjust slowly. Additionally, children should be allowed to interact with the decorations and assist with decorating to help them cope with the changes.
Lastly, and likely the most difficult to do is to communicate with extended family that will be interacting with the children. Discuss with them the needs of your child, what is overstimulating to them, and ways to assist in calming them. These conversations are hard but need to happen; and ultimately will help avoid overwhelming situation for these children and their families.
Having awareness of situations that may be difficult, coupled with practice and implementation of these strategies can help to alleviate stress and anxiety and ultimately help to make the holidays enjoyable.