If your child has ever experienced the strain of holiday anxiety, you have probably already thought about creating a plan to avoid extra stress this year! As an Autism Mom for 20 years, I have had a lot of experience with meltdowns and tantrums as well as successful and calm holiday events. I am about to share 7 Autism Anxiety Tips that I have learned over the years that can help you make a plan for stress free (okay, probably more like low stress) holiday this year!
- Be Realistic: Limit Outings to a Manageable Schedule for your Child with Autism
What can your little person on the spectrum reasonably handle? How events are too many? Knowing yours and their limitations before hand can prevent unnecessary stressors. I used to think that it was best for my child on the autism spectrum to attend and be involved in everything that the family did; we certainly did not want to exclude him from anything! In our case, with a large family, that meant several school Christmas programs and a lot of community and family outings. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was not what was best for my child. Poor Cole was suffering from social anxiety, transitional stress and sensory overload! I decided to scale our calendar back a bit and give Cole the option of staying home in his own environment with a familiar caregiver to support him. At first I felt guilty leaving Cole with a sitter, but after seeing how much happier he was sticking to his regular routine, I realized that I shouldn’t feel guilty about choosing what is best for him. Eventually Cole became a lot more comfortable in social situations and now he has his own strategies to self regulate his social anxiety.
- Manage Expectations: Let Hosts Know About Compromises in Advance
Everyone has expectations over the holidays and sometimes our children need us to advocate for compromise. Not to throw Mother-in-laws under the bus because I’m going to be one someday, but we won’t always see eye-to-eye on what our family gatherings should look like. Letting your hosts know in advance what you child can and cannot handle will give you time to sort out these kinks and find a solution before party time. Talking about it ahead of time will help you to avoid conflict on the big day. A happy and harmonious gathering is the best start to a stress free holiday! In our family, we all sit around the table for Christmas dinner. These close quarters where too intense for Cole when he was younger. Allowing him to eat on his own ensured that he could eat at his own pace, without any pressure. In my experience, a fed and happy child is far more comfortable and calm at a family gathering; win for everyone.
- Plan Ahead: Be Prepared for Challenges Before they Arise
Think about past holiday events; what were triggers for your child? The best option is to eliminate as many of those triggers as possible. You know what they are: dietary, sensory, environment? If my child had allergies, I wouldn’t hesitate to call my friends/relatives before we visit to make sure that my child would be safe. I don’t know why it took me so long to get comfortable with making arrangements so my son with autism could have the same success at family dinners. I am not suggesting that you insist that every place you visit becomes completely autism friendly before you visit. You can pick the biggest challenges and alleviate them by advocating for support from your host. For example: many years ago I asked my extended family to eliminate candy canes from family Christmas gatherings. With red AND green food dye and solid sugar, candy canes were sure to cause my son to go into a crazy cycle. My family graciously complied and our gatherings ever since have not missed the hours of insanity followed by frantic screaming, then tears and depression that come from even one candy cane.
- Set Your Child Up For Success: Manage the Environment so Your Child can be Comfortable
Just because Family gatherings have always been held at your Great Aunt Matilda’s heritage home, doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way. Families grow and the addition of children, especially one on the spectrum, can really change the family dynamic. Advocate for Christmas dinner to be held in a child friendly environment, even if that means hosting them at your house! Ask for consideration to be made for a movie time after dinner or a quiet place for you to spend time helping your child avoid overstimulation. You might even decide to drop the huge extended family gathering entirely and opt for a smaller dinner with just immediate family. The last time we attended a family dinner with extended family, Cole was so stressed out and all he wanted to do was bounce on my aunt’s bed. This was way beyond my Aunt’s comfort zone, Cole couldn’t understand why the quietest place in the house was off limits! We left after a short visit and have opted out ever since. Now we enjoy Christmas dinner with immediate family at home and extend the invitation to uncles and aunts if they would like to join.
- Schedule Down Time: Make a Plan to Support Your Child’s Sensory Needs
Whether we are having company or traveling for the holidays, any change in routine can be a challenge for our sensitive children on the Autism Spectrum. Before attending a social event, identify a quiet area where your child can escape from all the noise. Be attentive to subtle ques that your child is struggling so you can intervene before a melt down happens. Bring some familiar items to comfort them when sensory overload is threatening to side swipe their calm. A backpack filled with essentials; a favorite blanket, book or toy can go a long ways. I’m not even going to judge if you decide to pack a suitcase full of calming items for your child! Once Cole was old enough to not to need a diaper bag, I felt conspicuous packing along extra stuff for him. Eventually, I realized that these security props made new experiences so much more bearable for Cole, and by default, for me too!
- Set up Incentives: Capture the Motivation of your Child by Making it Worth Their While!
For a neuro-typical child, social situations may be stressful, but there are many positive interactions that eventually foster the belief that social outings are fun! For our children on the spectrum, there may be far more negative experiences involved in social situations to far outweigh the positives. Building in positive incentives early on can support your child to develop a tolerance and maybe even an interest in social times. For example, for a long time in our home, Sunday was pizza day. Pizza was Cole’s favorite food and it gave him something to look forward to after church. In fact, when he became a little stressed out at church, he would come to me and say, “cheese pizza?” I would say, “first church, then cheese pizza.” The pizza was not conditional to his behaviour, it was simply planned as a positive event following a challenging one. I use the same principle in non routine events by letting Cole know that we have an event happening (that may be more stressful for him) and that immediately afterwards, he was going to have a pop, a chocolate or whatever was a favorite at the time. The incentive is not behaviour conditional, it is simply a positive to help him focus on tolerating the challenge. This can also be broken down for children that have a hard time waiting for the incentive by staggering incentives in 5 minute increments or whatever works for your child. I have attended many an event with a bag of Skittles in my pocket! For more clarity on the difference between incentives and bribes, check this out.
- Build Your Tribe: There’s no need to go it alone; Cultivate a Support System.
Holidays can be stressful, but they also bring out the best in traditions and relationships. It is a time for people to lay aside their differences and come together in the Spirit of the season. This makes it a great time to have a heart-to-heart with loved ones about the needs of your child. Lets face it, there are people who will never see your child for their positive traits and would much rather blame your parenting for what they consider to be bad behaviour. I am not saying that you should keep trying to get them to understand. In fact, set clear boundaries with these people and even give yourself permission to create a little distance if necessary. What I am suggesting is that you take a moment to identify a few people who have empathy for your child and with a little bit of education and prepping could become the biggest advocates for your child at family functions. When Cole was very little, he took to my sister as if she was me! In fact, I am pretty sure that he actually thought we were the same person. She was very keen to help me out, so with a little training, she was able to fill in for me seamlessly when I needed her. Another valuable asset to Cole was my Parents. Even though they didn’t understand autism in the beginning, they chose to accept Cole no matter what and protected Cole’s freedom to be himself whenever he was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Another family we knew very well, one of a very few families who continued to invite us into their home with out complicated child, were willing to embrace all of Cole’s quirkiness with enthusiasm. When Cole wanted to ring their door bell 50 times/visit, they would say “Cole’s here!!” 50 times too! Knowing who your people are (and aren’t) is so important for our tiny humans. They need the tribe as much as we do!
Whether you decide to hole up in your own nest or head out into the world this holiday season, the important thing is to be prepared in advance. Planning ahead can take a lot of the guess and stress out of most events. These strategies are just the principle that you can use to make your own Holiday plan for your child on the autism spectrum. I have put these strategies into a printable worksheet that you can personalize for your child and your holiday planning. You can download this printable for free right here. If what you really need are tools to reduce your own anxiety, check out this post on Avoiding Mommy Burnout.