I know from talking to a lot of parents in my practice that the holidays can be exceptionally stressful for a child on the spectrum. And so here are my tips on how to successfully navigate the holidays with your special needs child!! (PLEASE NOTE – I have included some exceptional suggestions I have received from parents on what’s worked for them!):

  1. Provide visual schedules of what the holiday days etc. look like so that your child knows what is coming.
  2. Staying in a place away from home could potentially cause anxiety to a child on the spectrum. Try to create a social story about the travel plan. Mark days on the calendar that you will be away from home and the day you will come back. www.makebeliefscomix.com is a great resource for making social stories.
  3. Kids on the spectrum really like a set routine. So even on non-school days, if you are at home, it helps if the child follows the usual morning routine of getting ready just like on a school day. It keeps that part predictable. This when coupled with a visual schedule can make starting the day a lot easier.
    Parent’s anecdotal tip: My child always wakes up at the same time, school day or not. This unstructured time on a non- school day always leaves him frazzled. So we follow the morning routine of having breakfast, brushing teeth and changing clothes just like we do on a school day. We try to schedule outside errands in the morning. It’s that much easier to get out of the house if the child is already ready and primed to get out.
  4. Make sure to schedule in some “homework” time even during the holidays. It makes getting back to school work after the long break a little easier.
  5. Try to provide a basic structure, with options for various activities for any unstructured time. Do this visually if possible if that works better for your child. Plan to provide activities that your child may be interested in – so that there is not a feeling of boredom and frustration during extended visits, etc..
  6. Role play if need be any possible new situations (e.g. visiting family, etc.) to provide clear, concise concrete expectations.
  7. For any novel situation (e.g. air travel), do your best to provide your child with a story, pictures, visual schedule, or routine for the new situation.
  8. Bring along any added ‘perks’ that you need to provide positive reinforcement (e.g. iPad etc.), and don’t worry yourself if you feel you are leaning on these more than usual! The holidays are not a ‘usual’ time of year.
  9. Use the most preferred positive reinforcement item for the most important tasks instead of making it too readily available all the time.
    Parent’s anecdotal tip “Playing on the iPad is my child’s most preferred activity. But we have seen that if we give in to the demand of giving her the iPad early on in the day, it is impossible to get anything else done from her because she already has what she wants. So this is something she always has to work for.”
  10. Do talk with family members about any supports, strategies, or challenges you are experiencing. It is better that they know so that they understand, and can offer support.
  11. Talk to your friends who also have children on the spectrum. Often their experience may shed light on a new tactic that helps to alleviate some of your child’s frustration and anxiety.

Do remember your child doesn’t mean to be difficult. The holidays can be full of lots of frustration, high anxiety and distress for many children on the spectrum, due to the changes in routine, lack of structure, and high amounts of unpredictability. Keeping this in mind should help you when tantrums strike!