What to Do When You’re Expecting Happy Holidays

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The main thing that living with autism has taught me is to manage my expectations. I still stumble on this all the time, but during the holidays this awareness has transformed the season from stressful to festive. In the spirit of giving, I thought I’d share my top tips so you, too, can be a little more merry.

  1. Expect less and enjoy more
    Instead of lining up my holiday to-do’s, dragging my son from one activity to the next, I pick one holiday tradition I really want to share with him. One year it was a visit to Santa, the next was decorating the tree. When you reduce your expectations, it allows you to enjoy what your child is able to do, instead of lamenting what has gone wrong. Choosing one special activity also allows you to funnel all your resources into that event. Things become more manageable, and you find that the joyful memories from that event last through the weeks to come.
  2. Know your child’s limits
    When I want my child to join me in a tradition, I make sure I know what he’s capable of. Our first visit to Santa was not in a busy mall, but at a small neighborhood store. There was no line, little bustle. I also didn’t expect him to sit on Santa’s lap, smile for the camera and rattle off a list of wishes. The setting allowed me to model what I wanted him to do: sit on Santa’s lap, smile at the camera and chat a little. Those two pictures, of me on Santa’s lap grinning, and my son standing next to him with a sweet smile, bring back fond holiday memories.
  3. Prepare family and friends
    Food, gifts, noise and chaos… Sometimes the holidays feel like they were designed to make families living with autism miserable. But thoughtfully preparing your family and friends will make supporting your child easier. Let them know that he will open gifts later and follow up with a thank-you phone call. Warn them that she may not eat the traditional meal. Explain that the bustle of gatherings overwhelms your child.
  4. Plan ahead
    Know what food will be available at gatherings and bring your own food if your child doesn’t like what’s on the menu. Ask the host if there is a quiet space where your child can retreat if things get too overwhelming.
  5. Set up clear expectations
    For almost all community outings, I set up “rules.” We’ve got the grocery store rules, the restaurant rules. You get the idea. The holidays bring additional expectations of behavior. So set those up for your child beforehand. Having a response rehearsed to common questions from relatives will help. And so will a list of how to handle giving and receiving. My little guy loves candy canes, so I often remind him that the rule is to take only one. Of course, social stories about all the traditions, like gift giving, help a lot. List and post your rules for easy reference, read social stories many times, and give your child a chance to rehearse these scripts.
  6. Maintain that high
    You’ve arrived at your holiday event prepared. Your child is doing great, and you are delighting in their success. Now is the time to leave. You may want to stay and family and friends may be urging you to, but leaving on a high note will preserve those memories as joyful ones. Your child will feel successful and want to do it again next year.
  7. Bring it in-house
    My son will tolerate a lot more hustle and bustle if he’s in familiar surroundings. So we host a lot of holiday gatherings, spaced out over the months. This way we get to see everyone who is important to us, my son is able to participate fully, and I get time to clean up and prepare for the next event. Consider adding a new tradition around your child’s interests. My son loves to cook, so we host an annual cookie baking party. Festive and fun, it takes the social pressure off because he is doing a familiar activity while interacting with others.

With these tips, I hope you find ways to make the holidays magical and uniquely suited to your family.

Read all our holiday posts here >>

Author: Shannon

Shannon parents a son on the spectrum, lives in MN and writes to stay sane. She is passionate about connecting families to the services that will transform their lives. Read her full bio here.

One Comment

  1. Hi Shannon, I am an occupational therapist and I always talk to the families of young children that I work with about preparing for the holidays and examining their expectations. I think we all need to be intentional about how we do things especially when there are others in our family who have different needs and strengths and challenges. Thanks so much for writing this!!

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