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Holiday chaos, overstimulation, and change in routines are the makings of meltdowns. Here's how to manage the holidays to make them enjoyable for everyone.
Let's face it, a crying child in their holiday best makes for a miserable time for everyone. Autistic children aren't all the same. Some love parties and holidays and others don't enjoy them. Some love to have some time dancing to loud music and others can't tolerate it. Some kids can mask and others can not. You likely already know what the challenges are.
Oftentimes, as parents, we want to maintain traditions and make our own parents happy by doing so. However, we can not make Autistic children cope with situations that their nervous systems can't manage without inflicting some damage. Instead of attempting to change the child, we have to create situations made to fit their needs. This can mean modifying or scrapping old traditions and making new ones.
Accept that things are going to look different
If you're used to huge get-togethers, all-nighters with the family, and big family trips, you may have to accept that these types of extrovert extravaganzas aren't going to work for your family. This may give you feelings. Not all Autistic kids or adults are the same and not all are going to want to avoid these events. If your child is sensory defensive for noise or crowds, has a lot of social anxiety, or has a need for adherence to routine, you are going to need to manage your own expectations for what is possible. Is it possible your kiddo can tough out a weekend at your parents' cabin sleeping on the floor with 6 cousins? Maybe. As a kid, I would have been able to do that for two nights tops. I know it would be an absolute no-go for my Autistic child.
One of the biggest challenges parents of Autistic kids face is the conflict between what the parent wants their child to experience, and what the child wants to experience themselves. We see in other parents of Autistic kids resentment or even anger because they aren't getting the holidays they wanted. I recommend considering what the most important parts of the holidays are for you and try to make them happen within what your child is comfortable with and able to handle. For me, the best parts of Christmas as sensory--lights, holiday baking, the smell of the tree, music. These are all things my highly sensitive daughter likes as well. Music has to be low and for short periods, but we have no conflict there. Attending a large gathering is very difficult. We can do it, but it's a fly-by visit. When I was growing up, we had to be there all day long, and it was so hard for me. My daughter can not do that. So, we adjust. Short visits.
Set your child up for a good time
Here's something I feel stuck on and maybe you do too. I feel like however, my family did things growing up is how I'm supposed to do them as an accommodation to them. So, my parents are coming over, and growing up we waited for hours to open gifts and had lunch. It was very leisurely and I was the only child in the whole family and it was torture to wait. I felt that I had to do that the first couple of Christmases my parents came to my house.
Along came my daughter, and I realized that I am in charge of making this work for her. We, adults, are more adaptive--even if we're Autistic. At our house, we start opening gifts as soon as we get up, so everyone gets up if they want to be there! We also have a couple of the big gifts for my child UNWRAPPED, under the tree just out there completely UN SECRET. This is so she doesn't have to be anxious about if she's getting the gifts she wanted or not. For her, if she doesn't know, it becomes an all-consuming thought weeks before the holiday. We also open gifts a little at a time because it's overwhelming for her--she picks the pace. In between her gifts, others open gifts. The point here is that forcing Autistic kids to build up a tolerance to unpleasant feelings often results only in meltdowns and disappointments. Your family gets to make their own rules. Use your power for good.
Stay home, come late, leave early
I have a blanket "*" next to every single thing I agree to do. That * looks like this. *Subject to the quality of mental health on that date, world events, personal events, mood and needs of my child, phase of the moon, etc. All promises to attend are revocable sometimes with little warning. May come late, leave early, or both.
These always apply and everyone I do things with knows this or is told this. Having everyone know that I may need to back out takes a lot of pressure off of me to push to make things happen that are obviously going to end in disaster.
You can do this too. It gets easier with practice.
Sensory above all
The first rule of Zombieland is sensory. Attending to your child's sensory needs is always important, and it's especially so at the holidays. You want to minimize the sensory threats and gently rampy up the joys--not too much! Give the holidays a sense of wonder but don't make it overwhelming. Ear protection or earbuds with music should be available, sunnies or a hat with a brim if your child is light sensitive or the lights are especially bright, ditch the itchy clothes for comfortable ones--don't forget comfortable shoes. Crinolines and black patent leather mary janes pinching my feet are a matches set of holiday horrors I was forced to endure to look cute for everyone else for years. Make or bring favorite foods instead of expecting your child to eat grandma Rogers's (in)famous oyster casserole.
Remember what the holidays are about: love, togetherness, charity and for some, sacrifice. Our kids should be able to enough all the former without having to endure the later.