End-of-year holidays are a time everyone should be able to enjoy. Here are seven tips for an autism-friendly holiday.
- Tips for a stress-free, autism-friendly holiday
- 1. Stick to routines as much as possible
- 2. Accommodate your autistic child
- 3. Be prepared to answer a LOT of religious or non-religious questions
- 4. Make a plan for gifts your child doesn't like
- 5. Be aware of potential sensory overload
- 6. Respect your child's boundaries
- 7. Create an exit plan
Tips for a stress-free, autism-friendly holiday
The holidays are a stressful time for many autistic people, ergo their loved ones may also struggle to enjoy the holiday. Here are some ways to make this time enjoyable for everyone.
1. Stick to routines as much as possible
Maintaining the usual routines during the holidays is extremely important. Autistic people need routines to function. You may have some leeway with AuDHD (Autism + ADHD) loved ones.
Traditions are routines, too. If a holiday dinner always has the same menu, the family’s decision to change roast beef dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy to ordering barbecue brisket and cornbread might not go over well.
Ask the autistic people in your life how they feel about changing small things. Ask your family to notify you of bigger changes ahead of time, so you can plan for other accommodations. This might look like letting your child choose what to bring to eat, or offering to have the traditional holiday meal with the immediate family instead.
(I’m still not over my family abruptly deciding to stop the traditional holiday dinner of roast beef with brown gravy, mashed potatoes, homemade noodles, salad, and stuffing, in favor of trying new Pinterest recipes or BBQ brisket. It’s been over 10 years.)
Ask your child what they’d like to do these holidays or how they’d like to spend it.
Something I always wanted to do was sleep in on Christmas, but I wasn’t allowed because that was the tradition my guardians wanted for me. Every Christmas, I also experienced meltdowns that I was punished for, simply because of the holiday.
If you are stressed about having to do certain activities just to keep up the traditions, ask your kid how they feel about it.
2. Accommodate your autistic child
Here’s something I didn’t know we could do until recently: Bring food to a get-together so you can eat your safe or same foods. I also didn’t know that asking ahead of time for a quiet space to go when overwhelmed was okay; I’d always hogged the bathroom.
I think accommodations are perceived as socially unacceptable because social constructs and neurotypical norms are all about not doing anything weird. We are afraid we will be judged. However, I’ve learned that other people’s judgments of me says more about them than me.
If there are things your autistic child needs in order to feel safe, then bring those things. I started asking what food would be served at get-togethers, and have even offered to bring something myself that I could enjoy and share with others.
Is there a food your autistic child loves and could help you prepare for an autism-friendly holiday gathering?
3. Be prepared to answer a LOT of religious or non-religious questions
Arguments around beliefs are super common around Christmastime. If you’re not a Christian, your child’s probably going to have loads of questions about why this and why that.
It’s always odd to me how comfortable people are convincing kids that Santa exists, yet they’re not comfortable discussing religious celebrations outside their own. The more you shut down their questions, the more curious your autistic child is going to be.
If you are Christian and refuse to answer questions outside a Christian perspective, or cannot answer those questions from a Christian point of view, your autistic child might not grow up to be a Christian themselves.
I know the questions are annoying, but non-autistic people need to know this: asking questions and having them answered helps autistic people make sense of the world.
Don’t have the answers? No problem! Check out picture books from your library. Read holiday books about various traditions and beliefs, even outside your own.
4. Make a plan for gifts your child doesn’t like
An autism-friendly Christmas means your child does not have to keep gifts they don’t like. Gifts are about the receiver, not the giver.
Autistic people tend to be open and honest about whether they like something. The more I learn about boundaries and unlearn my people-pleasing behavior, the more I realize that me not liking something doesn’t make me ungrateful.
There will be gifts your child doesn’t like. Teach them how to respond without encouraging people-pleasing behaviors. You can give relatives copies of your child’s wish list, and there will be people who decide against using it.
Instead, ask everyone to provide gift receipts. Ask them to pitch in for an expensive gift your autistic child really wants. I’ve found people are much more likely to help parents buy something their kid truly wants, than they are to support a wish list.
Remind your child that their wants and preferences are valid. If someone gifts them something that they’ve made known they don’t like or can’t use, consider whether the giver really belongs in your child’s life.
5. Be aware of potential sensory overload
Autistic people process more parts of their environment than non-autistic people. In other words, autistic people are experiencing the world in high-definition audio and color. This can lead to sensory over-stimulation.
Sensory input unique to the holidays includes:
- Holiday decorations, especially those with lights, movement and/or noise
- Unwrapping presents
- Bells jingling
- Strong fragrances
- Certain food smells
- Surprises of wrapped presents
Some ways to accommodate your autistic loved ones throughout the holidays:
- Allow them to opt-out of viewing Christmas lights on houses or attending holiday shows.
- Let them use noise-canceling headphones and don’t turn the music up loud. (It’s a common misunderstanding that these headphones cancel noise 100%; they just muffle it.)
- Reduce fragrance usage. Don’t keep them on 24/7, but for 30 minutes to an hour at most. Some plug-ins don’t need to plug in to spread the smell.
- Allow kids to go outside or use a fragrance of their own choice.
- Allow children to help you wrap the presents or ask them if they’d prefer their gifts unwrapped. Alternatively, ask them if they’d like to know what they got now.
Someone once told me what they wanted to get me as a present and asked if it would be a good one. I wish this experience was normalized. I don’t know how to do my face when unwrapping presents.
6. Respect your child’s boundaries
If your autistic child doesn’t want to hug someone or sit in their lap, don’t force them. If someone else insists upon this, restate your child’s boundaries.
Some phrases you could use:
- “[Name] clearly expressed their boundary by saying no/they don’t want to.”
- “[Name] doesn’t want to, and they don’t have to.”
- “If you continue pushing [Name] to turn their no into a yes, then you will be responsible for the consequences of your choice.”
- “[Name] is modeling an appropriate response to your behavior.”
Thanks to the curse of knowledge and double empathy problem, adults forget how powerless children are. Autistic people value their autonomy and deserve agency over their bodies, too, no matter their age.
7. Create an exit plan
Every autistic person or everyone with an autistic kid should have an exit plan. Get what you’re going to say straight, so you’re ready to go when you need to leave. Try not to feel guilty about leaving anywhere early, especially when people are confused about why you’re leaving.
Taking care of oneself and family shouldn’t be as ridiculed as it is. You’re not obligated to stay the whole time for something.
Instead of forcing your autistic child to stay at a gathering because it’s the adult thing to do (it isn’t), accept what your child is communicating and depart.
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