How To Navigate The Holidays With Kids With Autism

Whether you're a parent with a child with autism or hosting a family with one.

The holidays can be a chaotic time for anyone. For kids with autism and sensory issues, the bright lights, loud music, and overall hustle and bustle can be even more overwhelming.

Minnesota mom Kate Swenson knows what it’s like to navigate the season with a child with autism. Her 7-year-old son, Cooper, is on what she calls the “severe” side of the autism spectrum and is nonverbal.

Kate Swenson's 7-year-old son, Cooper, has autism and is nonverbal. Her "number one piece of advice" for parents navigating the holidays with kids with autism is to speak up and be honest.
Kate Swenson's 7-year-old son, Cooper, has autism and is nonverbal. Her "number one piece of advice" for parents navigating the holidays with kids with autism is to speak up and be honest.

Swenson, who writes about her life as a parent on a blog called Finding Cooper’s Voice, told HuffPost that her “number one piece of advice” for moms and dads cruising through the holidays with a child with autism is to speak up and be honest.

“If you can’t go, you can’t go,” she said. “Don’t worry about hurting people’s feelings. When my son was first diagnosed, we would attend holiday gatherings outside of our home and they would all end in disaster. They were just too much for my son but I was scared to speak up in fear of hurting other people’s feelings.”

HuffPost Parents spoke with Swenson, along with a speech and language pathologist and a counselor who has a child with autism to get more advice. Here are 7 tips they offered when it comes to navigating the holidays with kids with autism.

1. Plan ahead if possible

Swenson told HuffPost that before the true holiday chaos begins, she likes to call the host of the event she and her family will be attending.

“Call ahead and ask the host questions: What is their WiFi Password? Is their yard fenced in? Can your child wander throughout the house? Do they have pets?” she said. “Think of dangers or even precious items they may want to put away. My kid wanders. I can’t stop him. I tell people to lock the bedroom doors if they don’t want their beds rolled in.”

Molly Dresner, certified speech and language pathologist and author of The Speech Teacher’s Handbook, echoed Swenson’s suggestion and noted that planning ahead can be especially helpful for children with sensory issues.

“If your child is a sensory seeker, prepare some activities that will provide them with the input that they need. That way, you prevent potential behaviors from sensory seeking,” she told HuffPost. “If your child is sensory defensive, prep the essential tools that allow your child to feel most comfortable (sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, transition objects).”

2. Discuss what’s going to happen with your child

Carl Sheperis, who has a Ph.D. in mental health counseling and is program dean of the University of Phoenix’s College of Social Sciences, has a son with autism. The certified counselor told HuffPost that when his son was younger, he would have a meltdown if he and his dad walked home on a different path. To avoid similar situations for the holidays, Sheperis suggested making sure your child knows everything that might occur ahead of time.

“The way to head off these types of reactions is to let your child know about any changes in routine that may be coming and to repeat the conversation several times,” he told HuffPost. “For example, if you are going to be staying in a hotel, you might show your child pictures of the hotel, rooms, pool and other amenities from the hotel website. You can use a social story to help them to understand how they might interact in this new environment.”

In a similar piece of advice, Dresner brought up her process of “creating visuals of the five Ws,” which correspond to the who, what, when, where and why of the holiday.

“Try creating a visual schedule of your holiday plans to review with your child on the days leading up to the holiday,” she said. “Take time to answer their questions and help them feel involved in the process, that way your child can anticipate what is coming up throughout the day.”

3. Be honest

Like Swenson mentioned above, being honest and vocal about what the holidays might be like for a child with autism is vital.

“Once we finally got more comfortable advocating for people with autism, we began to tell family members that we would gladly host any event in lieu of attending,” she said. “Yes, some people’s feelings got hurt. Nevertheless, it had to be that way. It was best for Cooper and everyone involved. Speak up, parents!”

Swenson also suggests having a "backup person" to ensure moms and dads don't feel isolated at busy events.
Swenson also suggests having a "backup person" to ensure moms and dads don't feel isolated at busy events.

Dresner also noted that there’s nothing wrong with explaining how to engage with your child, especially if he or she is nonverbal and the other guests are unfamiliar.

“It is 100 percent OK to let them know if your child prefers a high-five to a hug, for example,” she told HuffPost. “Your child’s comfort is the priority.”

4. Consider the available food and drink options

“If your child has some specific food-related issues or allergies, then it is important to plan the menu in advance,” Sheperis said. “If your child has some specific foods that they enjoy, consider packing them for family gatherings.”

Swenson is also known to bring snacks she knows her son likes to avoid any frustration.

“Don’t waste your time trying to feed them other people’s foods,” she said. “We all know that won’t work.”

5. Remember to take time for yourself

Swenson encouraged parents to have a “backup person” during these events. She typically turns to her husband or a grandparent for help so she doesn’t feel isolated from the rest of the guests.

“My son is a wanderer. This means I never get to sit and talk and enjoy the holiday,” she said. “I am typically moving about a stranger’s house and feeling isolated. Have someone take turns with you.”

Sheperis explained that he and his wife learned to take turns for sensory breaks with their son during busy events. He also noted that it’s OK to take a break from the festivities.

“In many cases, parents feel pressure to remain engaged in family activities during the holidays,” he said. “It is important to recognize that both parents and the children have limits. Give yourself permission to limit the time of a visit or to end a visit early if needed.”

6. If you’re hosting a family whose child has autism, consider the various environments, whether that includes decorations, loud music or large crowds

Dresner encouraged hosts to set aside a “special space” where kids with autism will feel most comfortable.

“Children with autism often experience sensory overload during holiday festivities,” she said. “They are in an environment that is outside of their comfort zone, and it is noisier and full of many more people. It’s a great idea to create a special space in a nearby room with familiar games and activities.”

Sheperis noted that other details like ornaments, music boxes, shiny garland and tinsel can also cause sensory problems for kids on the spectrum.

7. When welcoming kids with autism into your home, don’t forget to simply listen

Swenson emphasized that parents of kids with autism know their kids better than anyone else, so if you’re hosting their family, remember to lend an ear.

“If a parent speaks up about something, and you truly want them in your home, be accommodating,” she said. “It’s equally hard for the autistic kiddo and the parent to be outside of their safe space. Know they are doing the best that they can and the stress level is most likely high. Listen to their suggestions on how to make the event go smoothly.”

Sheperis also shared the important reminder that “autism is only one aspect of a person.”

“While these tips are very focused on the autism diagnosis, the fact is that kids with autism are also just kids,” he said. “Every child is unique and we should make an effort to get to know them beyond their disorder.”

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