Transitional Independent Living


Top 10 Tips for Helping Family Members with Autism Enjoy the Holiday Season

While for many families, the holiday season is a time to take a break from their everyday routines, families of people on the autism spectrum also understand that this break in routine can bring special challenges for their loves one on the spectrum.

  1. Plan Ahead- Preparation is often crucial for families with a loved one on the spectrum. Know your loved one’s needs and preferences. If your loved one has the tendency to become anxious anticipating an event in the future, you may want to limit how many days ahead of time you prepare him or her. For others, visual aids such as marking the holidays on a calendar or creating a visual story of events may help loved ones feel more prepared for the holiday season.
  2. Decorations- Changes to the home environment, including the introduction of holiday décor to the household, can sometimes be disruptive to individuals on the spectrum. For some, it may be helpful to involve your loved one in the process of shopping for and/or hanging decorations, which can help individuals feel more engaged in the process of changing the home environment and feel less disruptive. For others, it may be more beneficial to help mentally prepare your loved one for the changes to the home environment by looking through photos of previous year’s decorations in the house or creating a visual schedule in which decorations are gradually introduced into the home environment one at a time.
  3. Avoid Sensory Overload- Shopping at a crowded stores on Black Friday, flashing lights on your Christmas Tree, family photos with Santa in a busy department store – the crowds, the noise, or excitement can quickly escalate into overstimulation. Look for alternate solutions such as purchasing gifts online or hiring a sitter while you go shopping. There are several “sensory friendly” options for holiday decorations available where lights gently twinkle rather than flash.
  4. Roleplay & Practice- Novel experiences can be stressful for loved ones on the spectrum. If your loved one is flying on a plane for the first time, expected to engage in new religious traditions or eat different types of food than they are familiar with, it is important to prepare your loved one for this new situation. Preparing your loved one ahead of time for what to expect can help reduce the anxiety associated with these new experiences. Talking to your loved one about what to expect, reviewing pictures or visual stories, or even roleplaying and visiting the new environment ahead of time can help prepare loved ones and reduce the likelihood of them getting overwhelmed. Roleplaying gift giving scenarios such as practicing waiting for others and taking turns opening gifts, or appropriate reactions to receiving a gift your loved one is not interested in can help reduce embarrassing scenarios with family members.
  5. Bring the Familiar with You- Travelling for the holidays can be extremely disruptive to the routines of loved ones on the spectrum. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Fidget spinners, favorite toys, blankets, or stuffed animals can aid loved ones with self-soothe during stressful situations.
  6. Gift Fixations- If a loved one on the spectrum tends to obsess about a desired or expected gift, it may be helpful to set specific limitations about how often or how much time he or she can spend speaking about the gift. Additionally, if your loved one on the spectrum is ruminating about a gift, they desire that will not be purchased for them this holiday season, it is important to be direct and upfront about not getting that present. Encouraging the untrue belief/expectation can lead to unnecessary upset and larger disruptions on the day of the holiday itself. It is better to be direct and specific about your intentions with loved ones on the spectrum.
  7. Readily Accessible Support- If you are having visitors over this holiday season, work with your loved one on the spectrum to designate a “safe space” and teach your loved one to visit this space when he or she begins to feel overwhelmed. If your loved one has not reached that level of self-management, it may be beneficial to practice a signal or cue that they can use to indicate that they are getting anxious to prompt caregivers to assist them in getting to their safe space before they become overwhelmed. The safe space should be made into a calming environment that best suits your loved one, but may include soft music, dim lighting, and the ability to engage in calming activities such as using fidget toys, coping mechanisms, etc.
  8. Maintaining Elements of Routine- If your loved one maintains a special diet, make sure there are food items they are comfortable with available to them at holiday meals. Try to help them maintain their regular sleep schedule as much as possible.
  9. Informed Families- Help extended family members understand the needs and preferences of your loved one on the spectrum. Coach family members about what they can do to help your loved one feel most comfortable this holiday season – specific expectations such as not mentioning “trigger” words or topics, touch preferences, remaining calm, and other suggestions to reduce behavioral outbursts from your loved one can go a long way in facilitating a smoother holiday.
  10. Take care of yourself- The holidays are stressful for many people, especially those catering to the needs of a loved one with autism. However, your loved one’s experience will depend a great deal on your own feelings of calm and seasonal joy. You too need a chance to experience your favorite holiday events, movies, and food. Call on the help of friends and family, if you need to, but be sure you get that special shot of holiday cheer that makes season bright!
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