Supporting Families of Children with Autism During the Holidays

Let’s face it: Holidays can be hard for parents. While the idea of relaxing and reconnecting with family sounds great, the reality of upending a child’s daily routine, spending time traveling and facing uncertain bedtimes can often seem like anything but a break.

This dichotomy is especially true for parents of children with autism, who often also have to plan around sensory sensitivities and food preferences, all while having to explain their child’s needs in settings that can be overwhelming for all involved.

The good news is that family and friends can help ease some of the stress that comes along with the holidays. If you have a family of a child with autism joining your celebrations this year, here are some tips from parents on how to make them feel comfortable.

Consider sensory sensitivities

Bright lights, loud noises and intense smells can be overwhelming for children on the spectrum. Ask parents ahead of time if their child has any specific aversions, and, if possible, simplify the environment by keeping the TV and music turned down and not overdoing it with fragrant candles.

Ask about food preferences

Children with autism often have very specific food likes and dislikes, and big family gatherings are likely not a place they’ll choose to venture outside of their culinary comfort zone. Tell parents what will be on your menu ahead of time so they can prepare. You could offer to make something the child especially likes, or invite the parents to bring some special dishes, even if that means adding unconventional food to your holiday table.

“I wish people wouldn’t mock what I bring my kids to eat,” says April M., a Westfield mom of a 7-year-old with autism. “I bring something easy that I don’t have to worry about cooking because they don’t have anything my diet-restricted child will or can eat. For us, family gatherings are not an appropriate time to work on trying new foods.”

Create a quiet spot

Consider setting up a room in your home where the child with autism and his or her parents can retreat if the holiday festivities get to be too much. Invite parents to bring familiar toys, sensory items and technology to stash there so it’s available if they need a break.

“It’s nice having a quiet place to go when sensory things become too much, and the family should not be offended when the kiddo uses it,” says Mikka Mabius, a Fishers mom whose 15-year-old son has autism.

Set a schedule, but be flexible

It can be helpful for the parents to know a basic outline of the holiday festivities – when people will start arriving, when dinner is served and any other planned activities. Children on the spectrum tend to like routine, so be understanding if the family shows up late or the child isn’t interested in eating when everyone else does.

Don’t go overboard on presents

When the December holidays roll around, keep in mind that more isn’t always better for kids on the spectrum. Too many presents all at once can be overwhelming. Perhaps ask others if they would consider drawing names for exchanging gifts, or be understanding if the family wants to set aside some gifts for later.

When it comes to helping a child with autism and their family feel comfortable at a holiday gathering, think ahead, ask for guidance and stay flexible. If you try to understand rather than judge, the experience will be better for everyone – and you’ll be showing others what the holiday spirit is really about.

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