If your family includes an Autistic person, you probably have noticed that the Holiday Season can be fraught and challenging. There is so much change, so many lights, so many people…this time of year can be extremely overwhelming for Autistic people! Here are some strategies we have found to help our clients make holidays more enjoyable.
Individuals with Autism struggle with change because they don’t know what to expect in new or unfamiliar situations. They experience an increase in unanswered questions in their minds, which increases their anxiety. Suddenly, they don’t know what their day will look like, who will be coming to their home, or even what they might talk to those people about. They might be concerned with getting time to themselves (which is often crucial for them to calm down and process even an ordinary day).
To help ease these concerns, it’s important to outline expectations for the holidays. Talk to your relative about how the holidays might look and ask them what potential questions they have about their schedule, the guest list, etc. We all know that as a general rule, people with Autism struggle to communicate their feelings, initiate conversations, or plan ahead. Giving lots of advance notice with this conversation can be helpful so they have time to process and ask you questions in advance.
It can be very helpful to write down the schedule and any other pertinent information so your loved one can revisit the agenda and reduce anxiety. What might seem like a fun gift exchange to a neurotypical person could be a nest of unanticipated social interactions for someone with Autism. Having a schedule and information written down in advance will reduce anxiety. For example, if your family will be exchanging gifts, make sure to write down the rules or traditions (who opens first? At what point do people unwrap—should everyone wait until each person has a gift?). Sometimes it can be useful to reassure your loved one that they will be receiving a gift and then review expectations for what to say in response to the gift giver.
The schedule can include pictures, emojis, images of guests, etc. Whatever resonates best with the individual! We have found that a holiday photo album including pictures of relatives or guests who might attend an event can be very helpful for our clients in preparing for the holidays. A very successful strategy for some of our clients has been to include information beneath the picture so our client can study each person’s likes, dislikes, or even help to remember important things about that person. Having the photo book on hand as a resource can help ease anxiety before or even during a party. While it might seem like “common knowledge” that Aunt Dana has 2 kids away at college, an individual with Autism might appreciate that reminder when their mind is already racing during a social function.
Schedule in Down Time
Make sure to include down time to help individuals with Autism recharge and process holiday functions. Some people can flit back and forth between multiple parties each day, but individuals with Autism might really struggle to change gears. Less is more for many people with Autism. While they might be able to enjoy one holiday event and remember it fondly, trying to squeeze in another without giving some down time could be a recipe for sensory overload or even a meltdown.
A Feast of the Senses
The months of November and December can pack a huge sensory punch for those with Autism. Between the new food smells, the twinkle lights, and the cinnamon brooms at the entrance to the grocery store, it can be hard to navigate a regular day, let alone one with a special function!
Personal space is a very big deal to an Autistic person. They may feel overwhelmed when people are too close on an ordinary day, and we well know that people like to give hugs at holidays. Not to mention, sometimes a family gathering means tight quarters and overflowing living rooms. It can be very helpful to plan a break from activities for an individual with Autism. Taking a break in a quiet, defined space within the house would be ideal, but if that’s not possible, even taking a brief walk or just standing outside for 5-10 minutes at a time can really reduce anxiety.
Touch is another big sensory challenge during the holidays. We get it—you haven’t seen your friends or relatives in months and you want to embrace them, pat their arm, or give a handshake. Many people with Autism fear this because they very much dislike this type of touch, especially when initiated by others. We recommend taking with your loved one before an event to see how they feel about touch. From there, talk to other family members to see if they are willing to adjust their behavior to comply with your loved one’s needs. In the event of a rogue hug, it can be a good idea to rehearse some phrases your loved one with Autism might say to discourage such touch without ruffling feathers.
The winter holidays are often very noisy, with more people than usual inside spaces, competing conversations, and background music. This can be overwhelming for individuals with Autism because they often struggle to know which sounds to focus on. They hear 3 or 4 conversations happening at once and have a hard time focusing on the one they are currently engaged in. Taking breaks and putting on noise canceling headphones can help. We have had some clients wear ear buds and listen to music during parties to signal to others that they need a break from conversation.
And, of course, more people in the house means more smells. Many individuals with Autism are very sensitive to smell and certain smells really affect them negatively. Which smells are those? Having a conversation with your loved one in advance can be helpful. In addition, knowing which smells that they do like and find relaxing can be helpful. You can try to have these calming scents on hand during the holidays to help combat the negative smells!
It is commonly known that individuals with Autism struggle to communicate in some form or fashion. The holiday season brings more people together, and that means more communication. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is a source of anxiety for many people with Autism! One communication challenge this time of year is that everyone seems to ask questions, sometimes lots of them. Individuals with Autism might not feel prepared for these questions and, as a result, struggle to answer because they may need more time to process than a typical person. One of our clients explained that, “I hate answering questions I’m not prepared for because it’s not part of my script. When i have to go away from my script, my anxiety gets greater and greater and greater.” Does that sound familiar for your loved one?
Just this question factor alone will send anxiety and risk of meltdown soaring during the holiday season. We suggest just being careful of the reactions your loved one is having. If you see this person becoming agitated, it might be time to back off the questions, take a break, or move to the calming space you and your loved one planned out before the event. Prior to a party, you can help prepare your loved one for some questions they might be asked during the holidays. Having a list of questions and a few days to practice the answers can go a long way in easing anxiety!
We know all this pre-planning sounds like a lot of work…because it is. And as hard as you might work to prepare your loved one to have fun at an event, that individual with Autism is working hard every second just to process all the changes to their environment, routine, and comfort zone.
If you think you’d like some help preparing your loved one for family gatherings this winter, why not give us a call? Our coaches are available to help your family come up with a plan, create visual aids, and find a calm-down space!