The holiday season is a wonderful time of the year, and what grandmother doesn’t just love wrapping her arms around a grandchild, hugging and tugging at the child with every move? When grandparents live out-of-town, they find it even more difficult to keep their hands off of a child or children they haven’t seen in a while.
I know how much I love to hug, kiss, snuggle and hold my grandchildren. I can’t get enough of them, and holidays are the perfect time to spoil them and hug them even more.
But beware—loving touches, hugging and kisses can create an explosive situation resulting in outbursts and anxiety!
As we approach the holidays, I think about the many parents who deal with challenging situations with their children on the autism spectrum. Often, grandparents are not exposed to some of the challenges of a child with autism that occur on a daily basis for parents. That’s why it’s so important for grandparents to better understand how they can help support parents with children on the autism spectrum during the holidays. And any parent with a child on the spectrum can tell you that it is usually more challenging during the holidays with all of the excitement, increased noise and bright lights.
A child with autism often finds the holidays especially difficult, and you may find that he has more meltdowns than normal.
Whether your grandchildren are visiting with you, or the grandparents are visiting at their adult child’s home, the environment is new and stimulating. There are more people in the house and more noise, lights and excitement than normal wherever you go. If you travel for long distances to visit with family, the togetherness can be longer just a few hours, and that creates new challenges.
So what can you do to make it easier on everyone?
According to the Parent Coaching for Autism website, there are some ways to make it easier for kids to cope, whether she’s your child or grandchild. Being sensitive to the child’s needs is vital for a happier holiday experience. It’s important for grandparents to understand and respect the needs of the child—and respond to the parent’s direction when interacting
with the child.
Consider some of these ideas to make the holidays more enjoyable and less stressful for everyone:
- If you’re traveling, be sure to pack plenty of comfort items like snuggly blankets, comfortable clothing, books, portable games and other familiar items. Remain flexible and allow children to retreat from the main family group into a quieter room for some downtime when needed. It is never rude when a child needs a break from the group—it’s good common sense.
- Some children with autism are very sensitive to light, and the holidays are often lit up quite a bit. Consider keeping a pair of sunglasses handy—use them for traveling, viewing bright lights, shopping in a brightly lit store or mall, or even inside the home if a house is brightly decorated. Take along a pair for yourself and other children so the child is not alone in wearing them.
- Grandparents especially love to hug and touch—and children on the spectrum are often frightened and upset by touching and hugging. Use a signal to remind grandparents or other adults not to touch children who are afraid of touch, or quickly take the lead by saying, “Please don’t hug right now—we’re enjoying some quiet time.” Find what works for your child, and communicate that to all friends and family. For older children, it’s possible to teach them to politely let people know they don’t want to be touched with a non-verbal signal like holding up a hand, or by simply saying, “I don’t want a hug right now.” Respect the child’s feelings—this is a tough one for grandparents who may not see their grandkids often and can’t help but hug them. But it’s important to keep a distance with some children.
- Noise is a major problem for some children. Minimize noise and allow children to wear earplugs or headphones during larger family gatherings if necessary. Keep music low and
avoid over-crowded rooms of people talking.
- Find a restful place for kids when the crowd grows and noise is high. A quiet bedroom, a sunroom or an office may be a good place for a short rest with a snuggly blanket and quiet time. Make time and places for children who need it—and watch for signs of over-stimulation before they escalate.
- Food is the star attraction at most family gatherings—but food can cause upsets and outbursts from some kids on the spectrum. If there is nothing served that the child enjoys, it can be upsetting and frustrating. Make sure to consider the child’s diet and appetite during the holidays, and don’t force a child to indulge in typical holiday menus when he may not want to try new foods. Holidays are not the time to force children to eat new foods. Also, watch his intake of sweets, sugar and caffeine during the holidays that can trigger outbursts and anxious feelings.
- Some children with ASD are very sensitive to smell. When visiting in other people’s homes, let them know ahead of time. Unscented products are usually preferable if this is the case. Children on the autism spectrum may react negatively to fresh Christmas trees, candles and other holiday smells. Be aware of what triggers problems for the child, and try to avoid them rather than handle them after an incident occurs.
- Try to minimize stress and anxiety for parents and grandparents, too. Children can sense stress, and it causes them to worry and become upset. Crowded rooms, busy malls, heavy traffic and unfamiliar people can create anxiety for children on the spectrum, so plan ahead. Avoid large crowds, shop on less busy days and times with the child and find a way to eliminate stress for you and your child.
- If stimming behaviors are exhibited (repetitive behaviors like opening/closing a door), explain why it’s important to allow the child to continue the activity. These activities bring comfort to children on the spectrum and help them cope with the changes around them. If others are uncomfortable, they can excuse themselves discreetly from the room if necessary, but don’t try to force the child to stop the behavior. Parents are typically very sensitive to the triggers and challenges for their child. Unfortunately, grandparents may not always be as aware of these things, and even though they are attempting to create a festive holiday event for everyone, they may inadvertently create a situation that spurs outbursts and stress for the autistic child.
Make everyone as aware as possible of what upsets a child on the spectrum, and take proactive steps to make it a happy holiday for everyone. Don’t deprive a child with special needs from celebrating, but be flexible and use good common sense to make sure it’s a special time for the child as well.