How to Navigate the Holidays With Someone on the Autism Spectrum

November 23, 2015
A smiling man talking to a student in his office.

The experience of that mild and brief stress can often be greatly magnified and longer lasting for those on the autism spectrum. This time of year can be filled with precipitating factors for people on the spectrum, including:

  • Unfamiliar tastes and smells
  • Changes to routines and what normally happens on what day of the week
  • Noises and sounds that can be experienced as outright painful
  • Social expectations and spending time with groups of people
  • Spending time away from home and all its comforts
  • Down time away from a structured schedule
  • Weather changes and the timing of when it’s light and dark outside

And the list could go on!

What you can do:

For those of us who have individuals with autism in our lives or who support those on the autism spectrum as a career, we need to recognize these stressors and be as proactive as possible about them. NOW is the time to be planning and preparing that individual for the holidays.

So what can you do to minimize the impact of precipitating factors? Here a few ideas:

Provide advance notice multiple times about anticipated changes/disruptions to routines.
For example, I may know that watching a certain TV show is very important to the person in my care and that it suddenly not being on on its regular night at its regular time because of a holiday special would cause great anxiety or even defensive behavior for this person. So I would look at the TV schedule a couple weeks in advance, check for these things, and start providing warnings, maybe mark it on a calendar, and plan an alternative preferred activity for that time frame.

Provide coping strategies for sensory overload.
Crowds of people all talking at once, the crushing up and tearing of wrapping paper, holiday music playing in the background, glasses clinking together for a toast, unfamiliar smells of foods cooking...these are the sorts of things individually or cumulatively that can spark a crisis to develop. So think about making a coping kit available to the person with ASD, and teaching its use in advance. This kit might include things like ear plugs or an iPod with the person’s favorite music, a stress ball, smelly stickers of a pleasing variety to the person, a break card, or a reminder/cue card to say “Excuse me” before walking away, plus some desensitizing practice done in advance of a big family event.

Pre-teach and plan replacement behaviors.
Imagine what the reaction of others sitting around the person with autism might be if the person spits out or makes comments about a food they don’t like the taste of and think is terrible! If you’re traveling to a friend’s or relative’s house for a meal, ask in advance what’s on the menu. Bring along alternative foods for the person with autism to eat. Teach and rehearse table manners, conversational skills, and emphasize the use of breaks before any sort of meltdowns can occur.

Create and stick to routines whenever you can.
Try to bring routines into even what seem to be unstructured times or activities. Transitions in particular are good opportunities for this—packing for a day or overnight trip somewhere, coming into and leaving a setting, or gathering for a meal and cleaning up after it. Routines help people feel safe because they create a sense of predictability and mastery over one’s surroundings.

Pass it on — and share what works for you!

I hope these tips will help you enjoy the holidays just a little bit more this year. Please share and contribute your ideas for ways you’ve supported those with autism during the holidays and reduced the impact of those holiday-related precipitating factors!

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