By Raun K. Kaufman
Director of Global Education
Autism Treatment Center of America
Ah, the holidays. Special meals. Special family gatherings. And, of course, our special children! Oftentimes, we just barrel through the holidays, hoping for the best – but not taking the time and focus to make sure this celebratory time really feels like a celebration for us and for our children on the Autism Spectrum. Most of us find ourselves unwitting participants in at least one of the 10 Holiday Hiccups.
We know we’re in a hiccup when our special child is having more meltdowns. When our extended family members appear uncomfortable or at a loss. Or when we, ourselves, feel stressed out or burned out.
We may blame the hectic holidays, but, in reality, it’s not the holidays causing the difficulty; it’s the pitfalls we mistakenly step in. This is great news because it means that our challenges are preventable!
Take a look below at the 10 Holiday Hiccups – and How to Prevent Them. You’ll be thanking yourself from now till New Year’s!
Stopping Your Child From Isming (“Stimming”)
Given the commotion and routine-change of the holidays, this is the most important time for our children to be allowed to self-regulate and cope with their environment. We know that isming is crucially important to our children and their nervous systems. Ideally, of course, we would join our children in their isms. But even during the times over the holidays when we aren’t able to do this, we can still let our children do their thing. When we do this, everybody wins!
Feeding Your Child “Crash & Burn” Foods
Yes, it’s the holidays. Sugary, wheat-filled, dairy-crazy foods abound. It can be tempting to allow our children to partake in this glorious cornucopia. We might think it will be easier to just let them have it this once. Let me assure you: it will not be easier! There are a host of foods that we know are not going to be processed well by our children. Yes, the first few minutes of allowing them to eat whatever is around might seem easier. But a few minutes later…it’s crash & burn time. The melt-downs, overeating, challenging behavior, and diarrhea that will result are truly not worth it. Taking the forethought to either keep these foods away from our children or – better yet – not have them around at all will make the whole holiday experience a million times easier.
Surprising Your Child
Sometimes, we can be so busy planning and getting ready for a holiday outing (e.g. going to grandma’s) or project (e.g. putting up the Christmas tree) that we forget to notify a crucial participant: our special child. Although our intention is not to surprise our children, this is often what happens when we depart on an outing or embark on a project without explaining everything that will happen to our children in advance. Even for our non-verbal children, explaining ahead of time what will happen and why it will be fun for them will go a long way toward minimizing tantrums and maximizing cooperation.
Leaving No Way Out
It is very common to go to someone else’s house for a holiday celebration. Usually, we just take our child and hope for the best, thinking that we don’t have a lot of control over the matter. But we do! We can designate, in advance, a calm room or space where our 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, it can really help to take our child to this room and spend some time alone with him or her.
Focusing On Stopping Challenging Behaviors
Most of us dread our children 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 we DON’T want from our children. If we don’t want our children to hit, for instance, focusing on “not hitting” can actually create more hitting. Instead, we can celebrate our children every time they do something we do want. If we have a child who sometimes hits, it can make a huge difference to actively look for any time our child is at all gentle – and then cheer wildly!
Giving An Over-Stimulating Present
Sure, we derive great joy from the experience of giving presents for our children. But when it comes to our special children, we want to be especially cognizant of what type of present we give. If we give a present with flashing lights and loud beeps, we’re asking for challenging behavior later. Let’s take some time to sincerely consider whether the gift we are about to give is going to contribute to the over-stimulation of our children with sensitive sensory systems.
Leaving Our Children Out Of The Giving Process
We always consider our special child when purchasing gifts. But do we think of our special child as a potential giver of gifts? Thinking of other people – what they want, what we could do for them – is an essential element of the socialization that we want our children to learn. The holidays provide the perfect opportunity for this! We can schedule sessions with our special child in advance where we help them create something for one or more of the people in his or her life. (These gifts and activities can range from very simple to more complex, depending on our particular child’s level of development.) Then, on the day of gift-giving, we can invite our special child to present (as best he or she can) any gifts that he or she has made.
Expecting Your Family To “Get It”
Many of us may, at times, feel frustrated with members of our extended family for not being more understanding and responsive when it comes to our special child. But, remember, if our extended family members don’t live with our child, they won’t “get it.” When taking our special children on visits to extended family for holiday visits, we can send e-mails to them explaining what they can do to make the visit comfortable for us and our child. We can take this opportunity to explain why sudden loud noises might be problematic, or tell everyone the answer our child likes to hear when he or she asks the same question over and over. This way, we stack the deck in our child’s favor.
Thinking That Activities Need To Happen Outside Your Home
We know that 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. So, we can create experiences in our homes that we would normally go out for. For instance, instead of going to an evening parade with a festival of lights, we can put Christmas or Hanukkah lights around the house, turn off all the lights, and play holiday music at a gentle volume. Some of us might be concerned about depriving our children of fun holiday experiences, but keep in mind that when our children can’t digest the experience, they’re not having the fun experience we want for them, anyway. That’s why, if we can create a digestible version of the outing at home, our children can really take in and enjoy the experience. Thus, we are actually giving our children more, not less.
Seeing the Wrapping Instead of the Gift
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 our special child. The gift is sharing sweetness with the people we love. Instead of using the holidays as a planning fest, we can use it to see the beauty in our child’s uniqueness, to celebrate what our child can do, and to feel and encourage compassion for our child’s very different way of experiencing the world.