Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Surviving the Holidays with Autism

Corina Becker

Up here in Canada, we had our Thanksgiving back in October, so we're all getting ready for Christmas/Hanukkah/other winter holidays.  I'm going to be very honest: I celebrate Christmas, so my default for the holiday season is Christmas.  This doesn't mean that stuff I say cannot be used for other holidays, it's just a religious difference, use as need.

But I'm kinda using my own experiences for this, so I'm going to resort to my default of Christmas.  Also, I'm mainly addressing parents in this post, but I'm certain that some of these pointers can be used for Autistics of all ages.

But yes, the winter holiday season is approaching, and it's a very busy, hectic and overwhelming time of year, full of all the things that set off Autistics and other highly sensitive individuals.  The season is full of parties, religious events, meeting a lot of people and having relatives all crowd together, malls full of shoppers and noisy music, and regular family festivities.

From my own experiences, there's nothing really new in terms of needs and challenges, just that the time of year makes everything more chaotic and intense. Add in the excitement for a countdown, the anxiety of a lot of surprises, plus a lot of the goodies that get passed around, and it's no wonder that things get overwhelming. The trick is to manage the new sources of over-stimulation and stress while still participating in the holiday so that everyone can enjoy.

The holidays are filled with meeting people, lots of relatives, crowded house, parties, and other social complications that can make the basics, such as manners for receiving presents, more difficult to remember and perform.

Please keep in this in mind when interacting with others, that even if you know an autistic that is capable of being more polite, the overwhelming pressure on their social skills (and other skills) may mean that they are functioning on a lower level than their norm.  It may be taxing for them to remember simple Please and Thank Yous.

Be mindful of this, and be patient.  Little reminders on manners are okay, but don't be too insistent, because this is a very hard time of year and keeping the stress levels as low as possible all around is a good idea.

At events where its available, explain your and/or your child's needs, find a time-out corner for breaks, be mindful but try not to freak out at little slip ups, and if you find the stress becoming too high, leave early. Understanding friends and family won't mind too much, and you can get back to the ones who do. There might be some grumpy faces, but catching the stress at "grumpy" is better than "meltdown," where pretty much anything can set off a meltdown. So be very mindful of the warnings signs.

And if you think that so many events is too taxing, skip them. Take a break and pace yourselves. Friends and family members may not totally understand or be happy about it, but you're taking care of both your autistic child, and/or yourself. You could have a relaxing night at home, everyone doing a relaxing activity, maybe do something special if you think everyone can handle it.

I know that there are events that you can't skip, like certain religious events, or that mandatory company party. And to be honest, some of those are, well, boring for kids, and overwhelming in general, especially if it's formal (see sensory below). But don't be afraid to find a babysitter and go, even if it's for a little while so that you can fill the "I attended" requirements.

As for babysitters, it's good to give them some information about autism, so they know, but don't expect them to be professional respite workers.  Look for someone who is friendly and flexible, and maybe have them meet the kids a few days in advance, if it's a new babysitter, so that everyone knows each other and you can see whether they get along. My parents tried to keep the same few babysitters, so even if there was an emergency, my brother and I would know the babysitter.

Also, parents, don't be afraid to take the time to go off by yourselves and have a night together.  Everyone needs a break every once in a while during the holidays.


You probably could name quite a few sensory issues we Autistics have this time of year, as every thing becomes more intense, and we tend to react more because of that. I'm talking the crowds in mall, the rushing here and there, all the loud music and holiday jingles, strange and new foods, smells and textures, and winter clothes.

Again, a lot of it is the same issues each of us have, just more intense during the holiday season.  As a result, it may be better to plan shopping trips for times when it's not so busy, or if that's not possible, to shorten the trips as to accommodate a lowered tolerance limit.  It'll probably mean more trips, but it might also reduce overload.

Another sensory issue is foods, and there are many strange things to eat, with rather strange names.  Don't worry about having your autistic test new foods; while it's certainly an opportunity to try new things, it may be more that they can handle during the holidays.  If they consent to try a bite of something you think they might like, awesome.  But be okay if they decide not to try it right now.

As for music, if you want to have it on, keep the volume down.  If there's people over, well, you might want to just turn it off, because it becomes another source of noise.

The final issue I can think of for sensory is clothes. For me at least, this is big challenge during the winter months.  I find that during winter, there's less moisture in the air, and so my skin becomes dry and more sensitive. This means even more sensitive to the feel of cloth, textures, and seams, especially after bathing when water has dehydrated my skin. Even sensory-soothing clothing can become irritants during this time of year.

To counter-act difficulties dressing due to this, I suggest bathing well in advance of events to give the skin time to hydrate and produce its own oils.

Also, in winter, fabrics are heavier, which is good for those who need more sensory input, but clothing contains more seams and restrictions of movement. Given the time of year, some articles of clothing are necessary to wear outside. So try to use the hat, mitts, scarves and other winter gear that your child seems able to wear the longest, but when possible, limit the amount of time they need to be wearing their gear.

As for the times where formal wear is required, it becomes a matter of how much your autistic can tolerate.  Try to buy formal wear that can be worn for long periods of time, or else bring along a spare set of clothes, just in case.  Otherwise, let your child wear what's comfortable and looks good.


Another source of distress during the holidays is the deviancy from our regular schedules.  Understandably, there's a lot of things to keep track of, and it can get very busy and overwhelming.  What I think is key is keeping as much of the regular schedule, with more cool-down periods. The normalcy of it will be grounding and calming, reassuring your autistic that things are still under control, and it helps transitioning between the holiday season and the non-holiday season.

For all the different events and activities, if possible and when appropriate, try to include your autistic in the decision making process. This will help them to be involved and be more informed about what's happening. This also gives them the opportunity to express what they'd like to do and experience the holiday better.

I also suggest to try to do the same things year after year; this makes the holiday a part of the yearly schedule, and as time goes on, may make the holidays easier as your autistic has a better idea of what to expect.

What I find is that after the holidays, or any big and draining events, I have a period of transition and adjustment to get back into the regular schedule. Sometimes this includes period where I regress in skills, tolerance, and energy as I am recovering from the event, especially when I have been unable to maintain my regular schedule and practice skills.

During this recovery period, be patient and mindful that your autistic may be drained from the holiday, get back into the regular schedule as soon as possible, and allow them to have more quiet time periods.  For me, to recover from a weekend usually takes about a week, but it's different for everyone.

As well as what I have above, I asked my mother for some tips and advice on handling the holidays.  After all, she did raise myself and my brother, both of us with a wide range of difficulties for this time of year. So, from my mother:

  1. Don't do too much on any one day; usually one event per day is enough.
  2. Each morning, share that day's schedule with the kids, and only that day's schedule. Don't overwhelm them with future days and activities; stay day by day. Also have it that the kid can carry it along and refer to it.
  3. Keep clothes soft and comfortable.
  4. Have quiet time, and let them know that it's quiet time, so that they can relax properly.
  5. For children who have a hard time staying at the table, have a candle on the table. Makes meal times more special, and keep their attention so they don't leave. Keep a plate under the table, and watch for fingers that start playing with wax. (Candles are a two-edged sword; can keep kid at table, but they may want to play with the melted wax)
  6. Always serve some of the kid's favourite foods at every meal, so that if they don't like the big meal they at least have something to eat.
  7. Make sure that relatives and guests know the kid's needs.
  8. Limit the amount of people coming over and in the house at any given time.
  9. Have a safe place for your kid to withdraw.
  10. If you have a large family gathering, rent a hall. But make sure to keep a safe corner.
  11. Don't force the kid to do greetings and farewells; it's too much commotion in the front hall.
  12. Allow your kid to choose toys to hide away that they do not have to share, but at the same time, have your kid pick toys that they do have to share with other children.
  13. If playing music in the background, have calm music and be careful of the volume.
  14. When opening gifts, clean up the boxes and wrappers as you go, so that it's not too chaotic.  After opening, take gifts to each person's respected places to keep the central space calm.
  15. If the kid like puzzles, create a puzzle corner where they can interact with others one-on-one as they work on a puzzle.
  16. Find some way that the child can contribute and make the holiday their own. Give them suggestions and work together on whatever the child chooses, such as help decorate, help making food, setting the table, putting stamps on and licking shut Christmas card envelops, etc.
If you have any questions about this list, or you think I've missed something, feel free to ask and comment.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!


This essay was previously published at