As neurotypical adults approaching the holiday season, our past experiences lead us to anticipate a mix of joy, fun, excitement, and relaxation – with a bit of the unexpected tossed in.
It is a busy season. We instinctively know that life will shift during the holidays and that we will have to shift right along with it to avoid anxiety and feelings of depression.
For many autistic children, the holidays can feel more like a disruption of routine versus a joyous season, which can set off an anxious struggle to focus and self-regulate and cope with the social difficulties that can lead to depression.
How can parents help their kids to enjoy the holiday season?
Disruption in Routine
Autistic children particularly struggle with making sense of new surroundings, changes in routine, and changes in the emotions of those around them – holiday season or not.
Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, autistic occupational therapist, shares her experience with change in routine in her blog:
“If you disrupt my routine, it is painful.
Yes, routines are important. But not in the way that you think.
Let us stim. Let us be lost; when we seem lost to you, we are only finding ourselves. It may not make sense within the temporal constraints of a neurotypical society, but it’s a necessary experience for the divergent.”
While it is helpful to avoid major alterations in our child’s surroundings or routines, it is not always practical.
We can take the pressure off by using the change of routine as a learning experience.
Guiding Relationship and Dynamic Intelligence
As a parent guide, you can be the key piece in bringing a calming sense of normalcy to the holiday season for your autistic child.
You can be the catalyst for a fun learning experience rather than a confusing time that can lead to anxiety. How does this work?
With you as the guide, your child desires to learn from every situation, as well as from the minds of others.
Jointly, you meld into the give and take of the thought process, “I can do this, and I want to learn more.”
This development continues through all seasons, despite any disruptions in routine, and it is rooted in the six areas of dynamic intelligence:
The ability to ‘read’ and learn from the emotional experiences of others.
The ability to observe others and self-regulate behavior in order to participate in social relationships.
The ability to use language and non-verbal language for expression, interaction, and to share feelings and ideas with others.
The ability to adapt when life’s circumstances change.
Relational Information Processing
The ability to think situations through, to obtain solutions, when there are no “right or wrong” answers.
Foresight and Hindsight
The ability to reflect on past experiences and use them as a tool to anticipate potential future scenarios.
Kimberly Gerry Tucker, author, artist, and vice president of The Art of Autism, shares her insights on dealing with the holiday season as an autistic in her blog:
“‘Insistence on sameness’ and ‘inflexibility to changes’ are terms thrown about by professionals all the time. Unless you are autistic, I think it is hard to fully grasp just what this actually means. I LOVE my circle of family. It sustains me, but changes in routine still crack me like an egg. I don’t wish this to be true, but it is.
For me, routine and sameness are my life preservers, helping me to feel afloat and safe in a world which is always unpredictable, confusing, everchanging.”
Practical Ways to Reduce Holiday-Induced Anxiety and Depression
As a parent guide, you can provide the ‘sameness’ that Kimberly describes as a life preserver.
You can help create a learning environment that makes the ‘unpredictable, confusing and everchanging’ world a different place for your child.
Here are some practical ways to make it happen:
Slow the Pace
Slowing down allows your child to process what is going on in their environment and to read and follow your verbal and non-verbal cues (Emotional Referencing, Social Coordination).
Be Prepared With Alternatives
Be prepared with alternatives for your child to turn to if they do feel uncomfortable so that they can self-regulate without a change in behavior and altering social activity (Social Coordination).
This can be as simple as putting on a pair of sunglasses, a favorite sweater, or going into a quiet spot alone for a while to regulate anxiety.
This teaches your child that it is okay to feel uncomfortable and that there are suitable ways to feel better and to reduce anxiety.
Focus On Interaction With Your Child
Focus on interaction with your child, both verbally and non-verbally (Declarative Language), to show your child what you are thinking.
A shrug of the shoulders and a smile can say to your child, “I don’t like it either, but I am okay.”
In a loud environment, you might pretend that you are putting on headphones while rolling your eyes, “Yes, it is loud in here…let’s put our headphones on!”
Be Prepared For Surprises
And show your child through body language and gestures that you easily adapt (Flexible Thinking).
The less stress that you show – the more you teach flexibility to your child.
Be Prepared To Share Problems
And work through them with your child. Include them in your conversations to help them see that decisions can be made, even when you are faced with more than one answer (Relational Information Processing).
“We dropped the plate of cookies on the floor. We can bake more today, or we can wait and buy some at the store tomorrow.”
Neither option is a “wrong” answer, and both can be “right.”
Show Your Child
Show your child how past experiences can help them with current situations (Foresight and Hindsight).
“Remember the birthday party when you didn’t want to be hugged? People will want to hug you today at Christmas dinner.
Hugging makes you feel bad, so it is okay to say no.”
In this example, the child is taught to reflect on and use their experience to navigate through the current event.
These guided experiences become a tool that can help your autistic child want to learn and experience variance in life, and to store what they have learned for future use – all of which shifts your child away from anxiety and depression that can come from a change of routine.
You Are not Alone With This
You have the capability of creating holiday success as you shape new learning experiences with your child.
Remember to view the world through your child’s eyes, and enjoy this time centered around your guiding relationship.
You do not have to do this alone. Our online learning community is designed for parents to find connection and support with others, with access to the most current resources, and an open door to reach out for professional consultation if additional help is needed.