For many, “the holiday season” brings with it not only the expectations of seeing family and friends, of parties, of gifts and treats and a great deal of fantastic edibles, but a certain amount of pressure. Pressure to cook, to take care of gifts, to put on “company manners” in front of others at gatherings, and so on. Perfectly normal, well-adjusted adults can find themselves pulling their hair, snapping at beloved family members, and wanting to just get everything over with, already.
For those who live with someone on the Autism Spectrum, there is the additional worry of how their neuro-diverse loved one is handling the sometimes-chaotic pace of the holidays. This compounds the stress of the family and of the person with autism. It can be enough for many families to opt out of the joys of the season as they attempt to avoid possible meltdowns and other adverse circumstances.
If you or someone you know is living with autism and stressing out about the holidays—relax and try some of these strategies for having a JOYFUL holiday season.
PREPARE THE GUESTS
If you’re visiting or having folks come visit you—for an hour or a week!—make sure that they are aware of the limits of the autistic person or persons whom they will encounter while they visit. This will save you from having to experience any social discomfort and will serve to smooth the way for introductions and interactions. For example: “You’re so kind to want to get Emily a present! She really doesn’t do surprises well, though, so if you’ll tell me in advance what you are bringing, I can prepare her for it. Thank you!”
SOCIAL STORIES ARE AWESOME
Social stories are used by many mental health professionals and social workers to prepare people for new experiences in advance. For your holiday season, this might involve pictures of family members that will be seen around the Thanksgiving table, Grandma’s House, or a group of people participating in a religious observance. Discuss over and over what will happen at places or events, and how everyone is expected to behave.
These stories should also give alternatives, just in case!
HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN. OR TWO.
Sometimes, even when you’ve done the prep work of discussing the situation with family and friends as well as doing all you can to prepare your loved one on the spectrum, there will be a problem. A melt-down, maybe, or a refusal to participate. Stimming might take on a new dimension, perhaps. Something. It is always good to be prepared for such an eventuality.
Have a special “package” on stand-by. A backpack, maybe, or a duffle bag, filled with comforting things for the unsettled mind. You would know best what should be in there. A blanket, a favorite pillow, a loved book, ear protectors, that sort of thing. Perhaps special snacks that are particular favorites.
At a new venue, find places that are quiet and out of the way of the holiday cheer. This might mean taking a walk outside, or cuddling on the far side of a bed in a guest room, or finding a place behind a building if you’re at an amusement park.
RELAX AS MUCH AS YOU CAN
Your stress is communicable and will contribute to the stress of anything new that is causing concern over the holidays. Try to relax and enjoy the wonder of a day, an event, and your family and friends. With plenty of notifications and familiarization, this might not be as hard as you might have expected.
If you have any tips you’d like to share for the benefit of others who are celebrating the holidays in or with “The Autism Family”—a phrase I heard years ago right after we first got our diagnosis in our family—please share it!
Have a Joyous Holiday Season!