Holidays and Breaks in Routine –
‘Tis the season to plan for change –
By Tara O’Gorman, MSW –
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) generally cope best with routine and structure. Clear expectations and preparation for any possible detour in routine are important. While some kids appreciate the decompression time afforded by a break from school or other activities, some are more impacted by the stress of the change in the norm. During the holiday season, sensory challenges such as holiday music blaring from store speakers, bright colors, packed shopping centers and visits with extended family members and friends during gatherings add to the stress, even for those who are otherwise enjoying the downtime from school.
When my son was young, our family absolutely dreaded the two-week holiday break. Just as he was finally settled into the daily routine of school and all its expectations, everything changed. He was a child who thrived in routine and structure and was easily overwhelmed by the sensory challenges of holiday excitement. While many kids we have known looked forward to those weeks as a time to decompress from the stress of school, our child asked daily, “Can I go back to school tomorrow?” So we held our breaths and barreled through those weeks, praying for some calm days and more happy moments than meltdowns.
Every child is different, and comfort zones evolve over time. Often, the best way to help our children is to prepare them in advance for the social and sensory challenges that come with family gatherings, public outings, and the extra stimuli of holiday decor. Creating a daily plan that involves your child’s most soothing activities, including reading, play, video game, and quiet time, can help him or her get through those weeks until the school routine begins again. Keeping a consistent and structured schedule, as regularly as possible, also may help avoid sensory overload when holiday activities are mixed into the routine.
When venturing out for holiday parties or visits with family and friends, try to accommodate the need for a safe, quiet escape when your child is feeling overwhelmed by the overload of the loud crowds, the Christmas lights, the smells, and the constant activity. Sometimes, preplanning is helpful in avoiding sensory meltdowns. Other times, unfortunately, parents will need an ‘exit plan’ for parties or need to cancel last minute plans because the negative impact on a child with ASD outweighs the planned fun.
It is not always easy to explain to people that a sudden departure could happen, but parents can prepare for that chance, as well. There are times parents feel embarrassed and frustrated, trying to cope with meltdowns that happened because we pushed things a little too far, hoping our child would be okay this time or just for a few more minutes. As parents, we sometimes fail to intervene quickly enough. We feel guilty for putting our children into situations we know are difficult for them, hoping this time will be a positive experience. Younger children in particular do not always recognize when they are becoming overwhelmed or recognize the cues that a meltdown is imminent, and parents often must be extra vigilant during these times of sensory overload.
Travel away from home poses different challenges. Children are physically and emotionally removed from the comforts of home, and easy escapes to a quiet zone are not always easy to manage. Noise canceling headphones or earphones, especially for kids who have handheld electronic devices or smart phones, can be valued distractions. Try to control the sensory input as much as possible during part of the day so children have time to decompress from too much excitement and social expectation.
For first-time plane riders (or for those who need a refresher), outline the steps involved in waiting for and boarding planes and what to expect during the wait, takeoff, in the air, and during landing. Some airlines and airports have travel simulation programs for families with special needs. Having a favorite comfort item, such as a stuffed animal, iPad, books, and snacks during the trip may help the travel experience run more smoothly, whether traveling by plane or by car.
Dietary challenges often arise during the holidays. Many children with ASD have special diets, including gluten- and/or casein-free, low sugar or the Feingold diet. They may also have allergies or food sensitivities. This may be a topic worth discussing in advance. Children are often pressured to try new or unusual foods at gatherings. Many children do not know to avoid certain foods and will accept anything that is given to them. Others are very picky eaters who are frustrated by feeling forced to try a variety of foods, with unexpected flavors or textures. Often, children overindulge in sweets during the holidays, and parents may feel safer bringing foods that are safe and easy options to avoid upset. Try to coordinate with family and friends to help them understand restrictions and expectations.
Affection can be a difficult topic for any family living with ASD. Holiday gatherings inevitably involve LOTS of hugging and kissing. The unwanted or intolerable physical affection can quickly lead to outbursts or emotional shutdown. Many children with ASD need to be in control of affection given and received. Allow safe physical contact on the child’s terms rather than according to social convention.
It can take many years of frustration, hoping, trying, crying, and ultimately having to abstain from certain activities before we truly understand how to avoid or minimize sensory overload. It may take several more years to make the necessary changes and to allow for our children to learn to adapt and enjoy some places and situations and to accept that there may be some things they may never be able to handle.
As my son got older and learned to self-regulate more, his adaptation to change flip-flopped. Long weekends and holiday breaks became a chance to unwind and regroup. He has learned to value time alone rather than seeking constant entertainment and engagement from the outside world. The breaks give him a chance to relax, control sensory input, and create social and personal settings that feel most comfortable for him.
Now that he is a teenager, he mostly chooses the activities himself. He does not enjoy packed Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, so he chooses not to attend. He enjoys small parties with family and friends who understand he may begin feeling overloaded and needs time to himself to regenerate. While we still make some choices for him (like occasionally forcing dinner with extended family, which pulls him out of his comfort zone), we now encourage him to advocate for himself. We give him the option to attend events such as New Year’s Eve parties, and he is allowed to gauge for himself whether or not he will be comfortable and feel safe in a large crowd or party atmosphere. He may decide at the last minute that it is not something he can handle that day. Or he may last an hour and decide he can’t make it to midnight. And we always have an escape plan for such situations.
The holiday break can be much less stressful when preplanning with our children and with visitors or hosts. Trying to maintain a regular schedule, with as much routine and structure as possible, will help minimize anxiety during the holiday breaks. When we are able to take cues from our children, allow them to advocate for themselves, and embrace their need to avoid or limit certain experiences, often the new and unexpected is easier to navigate. When our family and friends are understanding and supportive of our situations, there is far more joy in the holidays, for everyone.
Tara O’Gorman, MSW, joined Autism Empowerment’s Board of Directors in October 2016. She is an independent consultant dedicated to working with individuals and families living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and consulting for organizations working within the ASD community. She is a group facilitator for adolescents and young adults with ASD and is the proud mom to two sons, including an Asperger’s teenager.
This article originally appeared in the print/online Winter 2016 issue of Spectrums Magazine.