By Tom Schreck, Director of Communications

The holidays can be days of wonderful family time filled with magic and happiness. They can also be a time filled with uncertainty, unpredictability and confusion.  Lights, meeting with Santa Claus and visits from once-a-year visitors, make for days out of the ordinary and, for some, days out of a much needed daily structuring.

The Autism Society offers tips to help people and families impacted by autism navigate through the holidays. There is no guarantee that following them will bring peace to all, but applied with patience, they may help keep unhappiness to a minimum.

Preparation is crucial. For children who get anxious with too much lead time, preparation may involve just a day’s notice of what to expect, for others, it may be that the more time the better. Preparation can include social stories, photos of decorations and even photos of who will be attending. Spend some time thinking about what works best with your family member.

Decorations aren’t fun and welcome for everyone. Gauge how your family member responds to the changes shiny garland and a bright tree can bring.   

“Lights that stay on continually are generally more calming than blinking lights, and traditional lights more calming than the LED style,” recommends Bonnie McKeown, Wildwood School occupational therapist. “Have your child participate in making decorations and hanging them on the tree to encourage their enjoyment of the process."

If change is the biggest issue, consider decorating gradually and involving the family member each step of the way. Letting them know what is coming the next day can go a long way to preventing troubles.  

When a child begins to obsess about a specific gift they are hoping to get, setting very specific boundaries about how often they can ask might be a necessary boundary. Keep it clear and specific, so there’s no guess work, and then stand firm.

Santa visits can be great fun if planned. “Visiting Santa is a treasured tradition for many.  Sensory friendly and special needs Santa visits occur all over the country.  Check the Autism Speaks website for particular locations,” Bonnie advises. 

Have a plan for when an event gets overwhelming and have a plan for being able to leave such an event. Check in with your family member, give them specific options and talk about them ahead of time so if a crisis occurs no one will be caught off guard.

“Your child may need to take more frequent breaks from activities that are out of their routine.  Even a few minutes in a quiet space, with low lighting and/or relaxing nature sounds or music can provide a needed respite and allow your child to be able to return to and fully enjoy all the season has to offer,” Bonnie said.

The holidays often involve travel. Remember to bring along the things that comfort and soothe. Keep that device charged, make room for a favorite toy or book and reinforce things that are comforting.

If your family member has dietary restrictions make sure there is always appetizing food available that they can eat. Bring their favorites and make it special in case others are eating the foods they can’t eat.

Involve the whole family as a support during these times and make sure the whole family, young and old, knows the plans. Strategizing ahead of time will be time well spent and may save time and distress in the long run.