Tips for an Autism-Friendly Holiday Season

By sandra.caplesc…, 26 October, 2021
Father with his son in his arms watching the sea.

Every once in a while, you need a vacation. No matter where you go, you're supposed to have fun, relax, and enjoy time with your family. Families with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) go through a difficult time during the holiday season, whether it's Christmas or you go on a simple vacation to an exotic place. For many children with autism, it can be a challenging time. Large crowds, noisy atmospheres, and bright lights make people with autism of all ages experience meltdowns, sensory sensitivities, or become overwhelmed. As a result, shopping for gifts, traveling on a plane, or visiting a fair becomes extra stressful.

For many children with autism, being away from school can be an overwhelming experience. It breaks routine, and kids with ASD thrive on order. While a vacation break is a breath of fresh air, for people with autism, a change in the routine can be disruptive. Today, due to the pandemic, a child might go to 'virtual school,' but a holiday still means a change in schedule that needs to be adjusted.

READ MORE: 10 Activities for Children with Autism During a Pandemic

Don't worry! With these tips, you can help your autistic child stay safe and calm during new situations.

Traveling Tips

While traveling is meant to be enjoyable, it can quickly turn into a headache. Anything can happen when you have a child with autism. People with autism like structure, so venturing out in new surroundings can be overwhelming. That's why so many parents are afraid of journeying and managing the child's behavior in public.

Don't miss out on the vacation of your lifetime. It can be stressful and a hassle, but with patience, you can overcome anything. It's not impossible. Here are some tips for a fun and smooth trip:

Explain Traveling to Your Child

Everyone is afraid of the unknown, and while it can be an exciting adventure, it's still a scary experience for a child with autism. There's no harm in speaking to your child about what they can expect and reassuring them that it will be ok. This will give them a sense of control over the situation and put their fears to rest. Answer every question your child has about where you will go, where you will stay, etc. Be honest and thoughtful, and teach your child the different aspects of travel. You can also take it a step further: instead of just talking, you can play pretend and create a social story highlighting what can happen when traveling. As you roleplay packing a suitcase or going through the scanner, your child will learn what to expect.

Choose a Quiet Place

The destination is important. Beaches and mountains are perfect because the schedule is often flexible and unhurried, with no interruptions, and the child will feel more comfortable. Look for activities you can do at that destination. Think about what your child likes: hiking, basking in the sun, going to amusement parks, etc. Just don't overload him with too many things to do. Adapt to your child's interests and be an active participant in the activity. Research the destination thoroughly before planning. Also, look for places with quiet spots where your child can unwind when overwhelmed.

Make Arrangements Before Traveling

People say, "An hour of planning can save you ten hours of doing." Airlines nowadays make special accommodations for children with autism. Before the flight, call your airline to ask them how they can help make the trip smoother. Pick a less intrusive time for traveling, a time that doesn't interfere with your child's routine. Avoid flights past bedtime or that require early waking. Also, call your hotel, restaurants, or amusement parks and explain your situation beforehand. Some places have employees that are trained to interact with special needs kids.

Bring Some Toys

Your autistic child surely has favorite toys or devices that keep him calm. Make sure you leave nothing behind during the trip. Many children with autism need familiar items with them to feel grounded. You can also bring soothers such as a music player or a fidget spinner to keep your child preoccupied. Think of what keeps your child entertained during their daily routine. Maybe he'll like to read a book or eat a specific snack. You know your child best, so use anything that might be a distraction.

Try some sensory chewy toys or use noise-cancelling headphones

Holiday Tips

Christmas, for example, means gathering your extended family and infiltrating them into your autistic child's life. This disrupts their routine and triggers meltdowns or bad behavior. If your kid is not used to his relatives, the whole dinner might turn into an unpleasant situation. Plus, all the lights, carols, or brightly colored gifts can be overwhelming for a child with sensory issues.

To prepare them for what's to come, here are a few solutions you can use to make a holiday event a success:

Dealing with Extended Family

If your child doesn't spend much time with his grandparents, it might be overwhelming when they shower him with love and affection. Your family members probably won't understand why your child behaves in a certain way and might not be aware of what he likes or not. They'll wrap presents in colorful wrapping paper, which can be too much for a child with sensory issues. They'll laugh and talk too loud, or try to hug your child, who might not like it. Most of the time, your family members have the best intentions but lack experience. Approach them before the event and explain how your child might behave. With a plan, you will be able to handle the situation better and prevent meltdowns. Let your relatives help you. Also, it's totally fine if you have an escape plan when things get too much. Your child can go to a safe space for some quiet time whenever they feel like it.

Create a Schedule

Routine is part of a child's life, and the best part is you don't have to throw away your schedule because of holidays. Try to stick to familiar routines as often as you can, such as mealtimes and bedtimes. Before an event, keep a visual calendar, so the child knows what is happening and when. Also, it's helpful to provide reminders. For example, if you're going to a restaurant, go there in advance so the autistic child is familiar with the new surroundings. Moreover, it's important to avoid surprises. Last-minute shopping trips can make the child irritable, and don't forget to tell your guests to give you a heads-up before doing anything out of the ordinary.

Shop Smartly, Gift Smartly

Shopping creates all sorts of challenges for a child with autism. Going in a stimulating environment filled with lights, music, decorations (and crowds) can be an unpleasant experience for an unprepared child with sensory processing issues. They process these ordinary items differently than you do, so be sure to bring your child to a more quiet store. Alternatively, you can bring his favorite toys or noise-canceling headphones to keep your child engaged while you buy presents. If you don't want to go through these challenges, you can order gifts online or go when it's less busy. But if you want to give your child the whole experience, like sitting on Santa's lap, be prepared in advance for this. Some shops have sensory-friendly Santa programs for children with special needs before the crowds arrive.

On the other hand, the idea of buying gifts can be an alien concept to your child. Seeing a toy they like might trigger aggressive behavior like screaming or crying. It seems easy to buy them the item, but it will reinforce bad behavior in the future. Use discipline to teach your child positive behavior. Choose gifts that are sensory-friendly (and ask your guests to be mindful of this too). Include your youngster when wrapping or choosing presents and set clear expectations when receiving, giving, or opening gifts.

Decorate Carefully

Your child is exposed to many decorations during the holiday season, from figurines to bright flashing lights. It can be overwhelming for a child with autism and can have adverse effects. You might be tempted to decorate all at once, but you must think about your child's needs. Avoid decorating your home too much, even if it might not feel very Christmassy. You can also ask your child to help you put up the holiday decorations. In the future, they might find it easier to cope with their surroundings if they actively participate in the activity. Another great tip is to gradually decorate one room, away from where your child spends most of his time. Always have safe zones where your child can escape.

Remember: Have Fun!

Your family is number one. Parents of children with ASD know their baby best. Keep it simple and find a solution that works for all of you. Make sure your little bundle of joy doesn't feel unanchored with the vacation, and always keep him in the loop. If you are looking for suggestions, take a look at the 10 Best Autism-Friendly Vacation Destinations

With patience, love, and care, you'll be able to turn what seems to be a "disaster" into the most beautiful holiday ever. With these tips, you'll be able to create long-lasting memories that your child will cherish forever.