Parties! Gift giving! Twinkling lights! The holiday season can be a source of joy and excitement for some but for individuals with ASD the holidays present unique challenges. With communication, planning, and patience, individuals with ASD and their families can successfully navigate and enjoy the most wonderful time of the year.
ASD manifests with difficulties in social communication, social interactions, restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, and sensory differences; many individuals with ASD cope with these difficulties by following well-established routines and behaviors. The holiday season often calls for changes to routines and struggles with flexibility are commonly observed in individuals with ASD, especially around the holidays. Whether it is travel, house guests, holiday attire or the increased sensory stimulation from crowds, smells, sounds, and lighting, the holiday season requires cognitive flexibility that can be practiced in the preceding weeks and months.
Despite the challenges, individuals with ASD and their loved ones are not doomed to spend the holiday season feeling like a Grinch. To help make the holidays enjoyable for everyone, anticipate disruptions to routines and prioritize communication, planning and patience. Discussions on what to expect at holiday events, reviewing guest lists that may include unfamiliar family and friends, and validating the challenges individuals on the spectrum experience during the holidays will help create a foundation that will lead to positive outcomes for all.
Furthermore, individuals on the spectrum should be encouraged to participate in self-advocacy and self-care. The increased social demands coupled with intensified sensory input and disrupted routines can be a recipe for overload, so individuals on the spectrum should practice establishing boundaries and communicating needs before the holidays arrive. Parents should also build self-care, sleep and alone time into the holiday schedule; giving individuals with ASD time to recharge and recover is critical.
Beyond the broad challenges inherent to the holidays, below are some guidelines to discuss, plan and prepare for holiday-related scenarios:
- Gifts: Prior to the holidays, communicate with family members expectations around gift giving and budgets. Plan in advance all gift purchases and keep in mind that not all gifts cost money; kind gestures can be more meaningful than store bought items. When receiving gifts, it is polite to express gratitude, even if one does not like the gift. Lessen the anxiety around gifts by practicing gift giving and receiving in the weeks before the holidays arrive.
- Holiday Attire: From formal dress to itchy sweaters, holiday attire can cause sensory sensitivities to certain fabrics and fits. Anticipate the dress codes for different events, communicate with hosts about exceptions or accommodations and try things on in advance.
- Travel: During the holidays, travel can be particularly stressful for everyone, especially individuals on the spectrum. With the right preparation, the challenges at each stage of travel can be mitigated. Packing should be planned in advance; it can be helpful to break the task down into smaller components over multiple days. Ample rest prior to travelling can increase a person’s ability to cope when plans are interrupted by the vagaries of weather and traffic. If possible, individuals with ASD should travel with a trusted person who understands their needs, but if solo travel is unavoidable, plan to have someone “on-call” to provide support during travel time. Also, have “tools” available to help manage the sensory challenges and downtimes: headphones, preferred activities, snacks and a change of clothing.
- Social Interactions: Visits with family and friends can be challenging for individuals on the spectrum. Prior to visits, it can be helpful to review, with a trusted family member, conversation topics that are considered acceptable and those that are off-limits. Practicing greetings, good-byes and casual conversation and discussing guest lists and lengths of visits can go a long way toward easing the anxiety of the visit.
- Holiday Meals: Many people look forward to the traditional meals of the holiday season, but for those individuals on the spectrum, holiday meals can be quite disruptive to their usual routine. If dining at a restaurant or someone’s home, call ahead to inform of any dietary restrictions and inquire about the menu in advance. Researching menus and ambiance can help prepare for any potential sensory challenges. Also, do not hesitate to ask if you can bring a preferred dish or food item for everyone.
The holidays should be a festive season that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy. While the holidays can cause disruptions for the routines and behaviors of individuals on the spectrum, those individuals and their families can mitigate many of the disruptions with communication, planning and patience. Happy Holidays!
Nicole Alicino, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice at Spectrum Services. Dr. Alicino specializes in neuropsychological and diagnostic evaluations for children and adults, including Adult Asperger’s Assessments. She also offers psychotherapy for individuals with ASD that experience co-occurring anxiety, social phobia, and OCD, and their families. For more information, email Nicole at email@example.com.
This article was in the Fall 2018 issue of AHA’s print publication On The Spectrum (OTS) and has been reprinted with permission. AHA is now joined with AANE – Asperger/Autism Network www.aane.org.