Oh here we go …that ‘joyful’ time of the year again. End of school awards nights, Christmas concerts, change in routine and lots of expectations… all the stuff that is supposed to be joyful and exciting, but for many families living with ASD, can mean stress and the constant watch for meltdowns!
Some ASD children thrive during the holidays with all expectations and school routines removed, whilst for others, the lack of routine and structure can cause great consternation.
But by planning ahead, anticipating potentially high stress situations and coming up with alternative strategies you can create a joyful, happy, relatively stress-free experience for all the family.
First some tips:
- Use the holidays to allow some much needed down time for you and your child. Insist on certain amount of outside play, helping with some chores around the house and then balance that with tv and computer games. Although sometimes there is a tendency to let the children chill out with electronic activities, they really do need a balance to help them stay grounded.
- Give your child an activity at Christmas, based on their obsession. Be a bit creative. If your child loves computers, ask them to design an e-christmas card to send to all your friends (they will know what that is!) If they are really little, ask them to draw a Christmas picture and have it copied to use as your Christmas Cards.
- Ask your child to create compilation of Christmas music that you can play when friends come around – insist on at least 20 or 30 songs however as hearing the one rendition of ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ over and over again will tip your stress levels over the edge!
- Get them involved in the planning of presents for others, but ask guided questions “You know, Grandma really likes gardening, what about we buy her a book about roses?” or “ Dad really like ties… can you help me pick a really nice one in his favourite colour?”
- Get them to help you prepare for Christmas – baking, putting up decorations, etc., but don’t try and make the outcome perfect! Praise and encourage involvement- you can fix it later.
- Take the opportunity to let them chill as much as you can. Spend time with them in the pool, at the park, or teaching them how to play cricket or body surf at the beach. But remember it’s not a competition, don’t expect perfection and drop any expectation. Instead enjoy the time your child actually stays involved in the activity.
- Use the real meaning of Christmas to teach about compassion. Many children are living in families who are struggling his year and for many children this may mean there is ‘no Christmas’. This is a perfect opportunity to help them get involved in giving to help others, either with a major charity Christmas Appeal, perhaps helping pack Christmas hampers or purchasing a toy to leave at one of the ‘wishing tree’s at many department stores.
- Where ever you go for Christmas get togethers with family or friends, identify a place for your child to take some time out. Take the game boy, books, music, whatever it is that you know your child needs and pre-plan strategies for taking time out.
- Encourage your ASD child to join in the games or lunch with others, but don’t insist on it. Know their limitations. I know that this can be tough, especially when other family members may ‘insist on the whole family at the table’, but there are many, many Christmas’s to come. And it can be sad to feel that your child is ‘missing out’ on the Christmas fun. But for an ASD child sitting around a table, with lots of noise, laughter and many simultaneous conversations, may not be their idea of fun. Develop an agreed to compromise… “If you start out at the table and try sitting with the family – give me a message when you have had enough and you can go to the car/outside/your cousin’s room etc.” Don’t let your sadness or expectations override what is important here. Remember your ASD child ‘can’t cope with overstimulation’ not ‘won’t sit at the table’. Christmas time is not the time to start teaching your child table manners!
For many families during this time, it is the expectations of the rest of the family that can cause issues to arise. Below is a letter that perhaps you can use as some guidelines to help empower other members of your family understand what you are going through. Please feel free to edit to suit your needs and share with those who need.
Dear (Mum/Dad/Aunt/Uncle/Family loved ones
We are so looking forward to spending Christmas lunch with everybody. As you know as much as we look forward to this time for (your child’s name) this time can be really overwhelming as too much noise and over-stimulation can create a great deal of stress for him/her.
So this year, we want to give him/her the opportunity to enjoy Christmas, and for all of us to have a wonderful, memorable time together. Below are 10 things that, with your help, we can try to help (name) become used to family gatherings gently.
Although Christmas time is wonderful, sometimes the meaning is lost on (name). High expectations, lots of media focus on materialism, the weather, the lack of structure can make a difference on how (name) reacts to any situation.
1. When we arrive at your place, please don’t be offended if (name) wants to wait in the car or completely ignores your welcome. He/She is just surveying the ‘territory’. It would be great if we could identify a place for him/her to retreat if the stress becomes too great.
2. When we are seated at the table, can we seat him/her at the end of the table, so that he/she is not completely surrounded by people and help him/her not feel overwhelmed?
3. If you want to engage him in conversation, perhaps just touch his/her arm or shoulder to ensure he/she is focused on you and please don’t feel hurt if he/she doesn’t respond entirely appropriately. We are working on this gradually.
4. When trying to engage him/her in conversation it helps if you do so with simple questions or statements, but be aware that with all the noise, he/she may not hear or totally understand the question.
5. Look for his/her heightened stress levels. If you feel it is getting all too much, ask him/her if he/she wants to play gameboy/Nintendo/ read a book or go outside for a while. He/She is not being rude, it is helping him/her understand his/her own stress levels and create strategies rather than meltdowns. Each year it will get better.
6. Sometimes if he/she is playing with other children, he/she doesn’t understand turn taking or fairness. He/She lives by black and white rules so if the other children try to cut corners or bend the rules a little, he/she is not going to understand it. You can help me by keeping an eye out as well for his/her stress levels, and helping others to understand.
7. Know that he/she loves you, he just doesn’t know how to show it sometimes. Please don’t be hurt if he/she doesn’t show gratefulness or joy in the present you give. He/She will, in his/her time, engage with the gift, but he/she often can only focus on one thing at one time and sometimes in order to do that, he/she will appear aloof or distant, or even hyperactive.
8. Please understand if we have to leave early as we try to manage the whole Christmas experience without overwhelming him/her. Each year will be better than the one before and if we can make this Christmas relatively stress and incident free, then we can build on that experience for next year.
9. Please understand if I get a little emotional at Christmas, because for me it can be a tough time as well, constantly being on alert, trying to teach him/her to be grateful and monitoring stress levels, so I possibly won’t be my relaxed self either and I may be a little on edge. But your understanding will go a long way to help us cope.
10. Know that we love you, and that with your support and love we are helping (name) become an independent, successful, self confident young person.
Some years are going to be better than others. You may find that your ASD child is fine with Christmas get togethers when little, then all of a sudden once he/she reaches 11 or 12 and starts going through puberty, that all the wheels ‘fall off’.
Remember that it is a stage, and whilst it may appear to perhaps be going backwards, in fact it are not. Once your child reaches 17 or 18, if the right strategies have been put in place and you consistently, compassionately monitor them, balanced with understanding your child’s stress levels, you will look up one Christmas day and notice this wonderful, well mannered, interactive young person sitting at the table and wonder what on earth happened. And you will be so proud.