Caring for a child with autism may change your holidays, but you can still have enjoyable and meaningful celebrations. Although autism may make some holiday traditions challenging, it doesn't mean you can't enjoy connecting with friends and family during the holiday season. By communicating your family’s limitations due to autism, being flexible, and adjusting your expectations, you can help make sure the holidays are happy and memorable.
Communicate Your Needs
Let your loved ones know that connecting with them over the holidays is as important as ever, but your child’s sensory sensitivity or need for a specific routine requires a different approach than in years past. You need to put your child’s needs and your needs as a caregiver first.
- Don't be afraid to say no.
- It can help to use direct "I" statements. For instance, "I am not feeling up to hosting this year" is better than "Having everyone over is just too stressful." Communicating in this way makes your needs clear without making others feel accused or burdensome.
- Even if you usually maintain healthy boundaries, the holidays are a time when they may be tested. If a friend or family member tries to make you feel guilty for setting your boundaries, gently remind them that your child's needs and your responsibilities as a caregiver don't take the holidays off.
Instead of saying "no," say "yes" to something else. If a family tradition no longer works for your family because of your child’s autism, it may be time to suggest an update.
- If you can't travel as usual, consider offering to host. Ask others to bring potluck dishes and help clean up so you don't wind up overdoing it.
- If you would like to attend a family gathering but it doesn't work for your child, think about respite care. While you may feel ambivalent about attending a family event without your child, remember that taking a break is good for your physical and emotional well-being.
- If a large family dinner will be too much sensory overload for your child, or you wish to avoid family members who make insensitive comments about your child, consider inviting family to participate in one of your child's favorite activities or for an intimate coffee date at your home.
- If you usually host the gathering but can't do it this year, encourage someone else to host instead. They may be delighted to welcome everyone to their home for a change.
- If you always bring a beloved dish, pass the treasured recipe on to a loved one like you would a family heirloom, or shine the limelight on another chef in the family and invite them to bring their favorite dish.
- If you can't bring yourself to give up the party, think of ways to save time and energy. Use paper plates, plastic flatware, and disposable tablecloths for easy cleanup. Make decorating (or de-decorating) part of the event and get everyone to help. Plan a low-impact meal such as a stew that simmers all day in the crock pot with little prep work or tending.
If it's just not possible to get together in one place this year, consider using a video chat service such as Skype, Zoom, or FaceTime to have a special holiday call on a smartphone or laptop. During a video chat, you can:
- Watch family open gifts
- Have them show you the decorations around the house
- Read a holiday story or poem to the children
- Sing favorite holiday songs together
Prepare Your Child for the Holidays
The changes in routine that come with the holidays may be challenging for some children with autism. Here are some tips based on suggestions from the Autism Society to help smooth the disruptions and help your child enjoy the season.
- Let your child know what to expect. If family members are coming over for gathering, talk to your child about what activities will take place. Consider using a social story to help them prepare.
- Plan strategies for dealing with sensory overload before a family gathering. If the family function is at your home, talk to your child about going to their room or another quiet space when they need to. If you're at a relative's house, consider developing a signal so your child can let you know when they need a time out.
- Prepare for train or air travel with social stories. Be sure to bring books, activities, preferred snacks, and any other items that may be helpful on long trips or during unexpected delays.
Adjust Your Expectations
Even without caring for a child with autism, holidays often come with high expectations that lead to disappointment and stress. Letting go of the illusion of a "perfect" holiday can help you keep expectations realistic and focus on what's most important about the holidays. For many people, that means connecting with loved ones, being thankful for what you have, and finding hope for the new year.
Here are some mindful tips from Johns Hopkins Medicine for adjusting holiday expectations:
- Accept that your holidays won't be perfect and will be different from celebrations in years past.
- Focus on what really counts. Find things to be grateful for and look for new ways to connect with loved ones.
- If you get into a conflict with someone over the holidays, take a few breaths before you react. Try to stay compassionate and react with kindness.
- As you reflect on last year, be kind to yourself and let go of any negativity. As you look forward to next year, make smaller, gradual resolutions rather than huge goals that will be difficult to achieve.
During the holidays and year-round, the members of MyAutismTeam are here for each other. Joining MyAutismTeam means gaining a support group of thousands of other parents caring for a child with autism who understand exactly what you're going through.
Here are some conversations from MyAutismTeam members about navigating the holiday season:
Have you found ways to celebrate the holidays while meeting the needs of a child with autism? Share in the comments below or post on MyAutismTeam.