October has begun and the parade of holidays is upon us; Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas are all around the corner.
Many families I work with experience a heightened level of challenge with their child on the autism spectrum during the holiday season.
Big family gatherings can be stressful (and result in meltdowns).
Exposure to foods not on your child’s diet can be stressful (and result in meltdowns).
A lack of structure and predictable routine can be stressful (and results in meltdowns)….
The bottom line is that for a child who has a sensory processing disorder, social challenges/anxiety, biomedical digestive issues and a need for a calm and predictable routine, the holidays can be a time of heightened challenge for the whole family.
Just last week I had the honor of attending the bar mitzvah (a Jewish “coming of age” ritual for boys when they turn 13) for a boy named Shmuel, who I had worked with for many years. Being at Shmuel’s bar mitzvah was incredibly meaningful for me as I watched him sit at the head table, sing a song while holding his father’s hand and dance in a circle with other adolescents from his school with a beaming face. It was also one of the most successful events for a child with autism I had ever experienced.
I wanted to share with you some key components that really made this family/community event work so you can help make the holidays work for your child and family as well:
- Small and simple. A gathering of your family/friends does not have to be a huge and wild event. Try spending the holidays with your close family and friends (especially those folks who accept your child and your parenting versus those that judge you and your child). This will help prevent sensory overload for your child. You might consider hosting a family gathering (so your child feels most comfortable) and everyone can help so you are not overwhelmed doing all the cooking/cleaning! This also gives you more control over what food will or will not be there for a child on a special diet.
- Give your child a role. One of the things that made the bar mitzvah so successful was that Shmuel sat at a designated table and he had activities to engage in (dancing with his friends, singing songs, eating etc.) Maybe your child is not willing to go trick-or-treating but he might love the job of passing out the treats to all the visitors (I loved doing this when I was a kid!) or passing out the presents.
- Create predictability as much as possible. For example, show your child pictures of who will be attending a family gathering or pictures of what will be happening (first you will get into costumes, then friends will come over, then you will go from house to house, then you will come home and sort through the goody bag, etc.) The more your child can know what to expect, the more relaxed he can be and enjoy the holiday activity.
- Give your child a “way out.” If the gathering becomes too chaotic for your child, let him know ahead of time that he can go to a quiet place (like his bedroom) and play there with activities that are soothing for him (puzzles, blocks, books etc.). Have his room set up with these activities so he can independently self-soothe while the party is in action.
However, more important than all of these steps is your mindset. Often when cousins (especially those your child’s age) get together, parents begin to compare their child to others and your child’s challenges might seem more pronounced. Set yourself up and decide to use the holidays to celebrate; both who your child is and the seemingly “small” steps he is making on his journey. He may not be willing to squeeze into a vampire costume, but maybe he is willing to wear a hat- that is worth celebrating. He might not be ready to engage with his cousins, BUT he let them use his favorite toy or may have sat beside them while they played. Honor these moments — because these are your gifts and you don’t want to miss them.
You deserve them.
Tali Berman is an autism specialist, developmental play expert and author of “Play to Grow! Over 200 games to help your special child develop fundamental social skills” (with foreword by Jenny McCarthy). She is also the founder/leader of the Autism Empowerment Telesummit, gathering top autism experts on her elite panel, reaching thousands of families around the globe. You can learn more at: www.meirautism.org.