Thursday, December 8, 2016

Happy Holidays with Autism

By: Andrea Davis

                      Tis the season for loud, noisy Christmas ballads blasting throughout the department stores and seas of people crowding shopping malls to take advantage of those holiday sales. While the combination of the two may become a little annoying at times, it is something I can grin and bear while I’m out partaking in the holiday festivities. For my son Russell, however, this would be a combination that would send him into sensory overload. Since my son was diagnosed with autism at age 3 (he is now 8 years old), we have had years of speech and occupational therapy, along with a little trial and error, to help guide our family through the holidays as smoothly as possible. Sometimes that is easier said than done, but fortunately for us we have managed to master a few tips and tricks I’d love to share with you today to keep your holidays happy.

Visiting the local Christmas store got
Russell into theoay spirit
           When you have a child with autism spectrum disorder, preparing and planning for the holidays can help you relieve some holiday stress in a major way. What my husband and I have learned in raising  Russell is that getting him adapted to the holiday festivities before they occur saves us some major meltdowns on the day of those events. One symptom displayed by children on the autism spectrum is their susceptibility to sensory overload. Overstimulation of light, sound, or texture can sometimes be overwhelming for a child on the spectrum – this can cause them much stress. Unfortunately, the holiday season encompasses all of those things – big, bright Christmas lights, loud holiday music, and tons of textures found in everything from the holiday meals to the decorations. One tip to getting your child used to the decorations that will adorn your home is taking them to a small holiday-themed store. This provides your child the opportunity to look at the lights and decorations in a stress free environment so that when your family is ready to set up a Christmas tree, your child won’t be overwhelmed. Every year, we take our son Russell to a small, local holiday themed store that features toy trains, nutcrackers, and of course Christmas trees. We allow him to touch the lights and decorations on the trees so that he can get used to festive atmosphere and get excited about decorating his own tree. By the time we make it home, he is ready to make his Christmas tree brighter and even more beautiful than the ones he saw in the store.
Russell helping out with the Thanksgiving ham
           When family gets together for the holiday, you better believe there is always food. One challenge we have faced with Russell, and have noticed when speaking to occupational therapists in general, is that children on the autism spectrum tend to be extremely picky eaters. One problem that can arise from such limited food intake is a child may not be getting all the vitamins, calories, and nutrition needed to maintain good health. While we supplement our son’s diet with vitamins he takes daily, the battle of trying new foods continues. However, we think we’ve found a way to win little wars every day, especially during the holiday season. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because I love to cook, but I used to become really frustrated when I would create these elaborate meals only for Russell to pick up a dinner roll and call it a meal. A couple of years ago, my husband and I decided to try something different and from that point on it has brought a lot of joy and full tummies to our holiday meals. If you have a picky eater, try setting up mini meals for them to try before your big holiday feast. What we do is let him see pictures of different types of foods he could try. I suggest using pictures because some children struggle with articulating their wants or needs – this is the case for Russell. We narrow our options down to 2-3 menu items and we prepare them together. Russell prepares meals with me because it allows him to see, touch, and learn the process of cooking and he gets to add his own creativity to certain dishes if he likes. Once he’s tried the items we prepared and he gets used to textures, we’re less likely to have any meltdowns or empty bellies on Thanksgiving Day.

            Traveling during the holidays can be a task in itself. For children with autism,
Road trip from SC to KY with his favorite blue blanket
traveling can bring on feelings of high stress and anxiety for many reasons. One reason Russell had a hard time with travel is because he is very much attached to his routine. Traveling disrupts the flow of his routine and takes him out of the environment he is used to being in. To make traveling much easier for him, we’ve adopted this tip – make sure you plan to have their favorite books, foods, or toys available. When they have something close by that is familiar to them, the anxiety and stress brought on by unfamiliarity to their surroundings may subside – this has saved us many times. In Russell’s case, his prized blue blanket has been faithfully by his side on every holiday trip. As we all know children tend to misplace things, so I always keep a duplicate nearby, just in case.

            If you know one person with autism, then guess what – you know a person with autism. It’s called a spectrum disorder because not all autism is treated the same. Different people may encompass unique aspects of the disorder, but they all have one thing in common. All those living with autism spectrum disorder have hearts of gold and wonderful gifts to share with the world. During the holidays, keep in mind that some things that are meant to be joyful, such as holiday music and decorating a Christmas tree, can be stressful or overwhelming to those who have autism spectrum disorder. Take great care and try some of the tips and tricks talked about in this article to bring a happy holiday to someone with autism. Have any tips of your own? Share them with us and spread some holiday cheer! Happy holidays!

Pictured left from right: Andrea (Creator/Blogger of Crops & Crafts), Russell, Khari (being held by dad), Joshua


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