Sunday, January 5, 2014

Tips for getting through the holiday season

Holiday season can be really demanding. Lots of events to attend that are noisy, bright and crowded. In Australia, the Christmas season is at the end of our school year, which is also a stressful time as school classes are out of routine, everyone is tired, and the weather is heating up. In the past for us this has meant an increase in stress and overload related meltdowns (and not just for the Autistic family members!) as we all struggle to keep up. 

Over the years we have learned some strategies in our family, purely by trial and error (my error, usually!) in most cases, that help us all during the holiday season. So this post is all about telling you the strategies we use to manage the challenges of holiday season events, in the hopes that some of the things we find work will be helpful for you too.

Strategy 1:  Say no to stuff

There is a lot on at this time of year. You do not have to do it all. If an event is something you know you or your child will not enjoy, it can't be adapted to help accommodate yours or your child's needs or if it presents safety concerns- say no and don't go. 

Strategy 2: Make your needs clear to those you will be spending time with

There is no need to apologise for this to your host or tread softly when telling them what you and your children need to be present and enjoy your time there. Everyone has a right to have their needs met, even if a little more effort is required for some than others. For us, one thing that really helps is to have all the essential activities of the visit over with early on in the event, so that if we need to go we can and we won't have missed out on things. In practical terms for our family this meant that when we went to my parents place for a Christmas celebration we asked to have the main meal served immediately when we arrived and the presents to be opened straight after that.  Those two things done early in the visit meant that we were free to go whenever we needed to. 

Strategy 3: Ask your host for a schedule of what will be happening so you can let your kids know what to expect

A lot of the anxiety my kids feel about going to events is not knowing to expect. If I can tell them what to expect and they know the venue a large part of their stress is removed. It also serves to help me know when I need to be most available to support them because I have advance warning of when things are likely to be loud or busy or otherwise challenging. 

Strategy 4: Set up a designated quiet place at the venue and show your child where it is so they can escape if they need to

This needn't be a big deal. A quiet corner in a bedroom is enough, as long as your child will be comfortable there and as long as others know that if your child is there it means they need some time alone and should not be disturbed. Make sure you show your child where it is and tell them they can go there if they need to be alone. Doing this has helped my daughter attend 3 recent events meltdown free, event though they were things she would usually find overwhelming. At one of those there was no room available for a quiet spot, but we took a very small pop up play tent and set it up for her in a quiet-ish corner of her choosing and it was enough- she could go in there and no one could see her and she couldn't see them. She used it a few times through out the evening and avoided becoming overwhelmed by deciding for herself when and for how long she spent time in there. 

Strategy 5: Bring your child's favourite soothing item and favourite food and let them have access to it

For us, this is often the iPad. Sometimes it is a fidget toy. Very occasionally it is a soft toy or a plastic dinosaur or horse. Whatever works. If your child has an item with them they find soothing and distracting it can help them recanter when they feel stressed. It can also be a good idea to bring some of your childs favourite foods. Trying new food can be stressful, so having something familiar to eat can reduce stress. When my daughter was younger I took her favourite crackers, dip and cheese everywhere with us so she would always have something to eat. We also found that chewing really crunchy foods and sipping through a straw helped relieve anxiety for her. 

Strategy 6:Leave "early" if you need to

My kids have some definite "tells" that they have had enough. I bet your kids do too. My experience is that if someone has had enough, they become less tolerant, more likely to become rude and difficult to be around. I know I do, and if you are honest, I think you'd say you do too. For an Autistic person "enough" can happen sooner than for a non-Autistic person, simply because of the work they are doing to process the sensory input and social interactions. And that is OK. If you've had enough in a social situation you remove yourself from it, right? So, do that for your kids too. If you can see they've had enough, leave. Take them home, let them relax. If it is impossible to leave immediately, make a plan to leave, tell your child what the plan is and stick to it. Let them stay in their designated quiet place until you can leave if that helps them. 
Edit: Alyssa left a comment (you can read it below) and made a really good point..... make sure the kids know they can tell you they need to leave. Scroll down to read her full comment. 

What do you think? Will any of these be helpful for you and your family? I'd love to hear from you if you try these strategies for the first time.... let me know how you go. You can also get in touch to tell me about strategies you already use that help your kids- someone else is bound to find them helpful too. 

Happy holidays! 


  1. On 6, I'd add "Make sure your kid KNOWS that's an option and if they tell you they're at that point, LISTEN." Helps with both the immediate situation and with us learning communication stuff.
    But yeah. This is really good!

    1. Thank Alyssa. That is a really good point. It is important for the kids to know they can say they need to go. I will ad an edit to the post. I really appreciate your input.


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