Whilst visiting friends and relatives and attending parties and social gathering can be fun, it can be stressful and anxiety provoking for children with autism, disabilities, sensory or attentional difficulties. Not knowing what to expect at these gatherings, who will be there, bumping into people, being asked for hugs and loud noises, music and crowds are all things that might cause a child with any of the above difficulties to go into meltdown.
So what should you do, stop attending any Christmas functions, might be tempting and in some cases practical at times. However there are things you can do assist your child to prepare for these gatherings and possible get through without a meltdown.
Let them know what to expect : Like telling a story about where you are going and who will be there. It may be as simple as reminding your child about a similar event last year and talking through who was there and what happened. If you have pictures of family members they haven’t seen in a year or more perhaps showing your child a picture of Aunty Mary and explaining that Aunty Mary loves to hug everyone will at least help your child know what to expect from everyone. If you know someone has a particularly loud voice/ laugh or something your child may become distressed by let them know. For some children a pictorial story (social story) might help them to cognitively rehearse what to expect at these social gatherings.
Provide a schedule for Christmas Day and the events leading up to Christmas: Giving your child a visual calendar (with pictures of they can’t read) can help them get ready for all the Christmas festivities and relieve any anxieties associated with this time of year
Pre arrange a safe quiet place: Having somewhere safe to go away from the bulk of the noise and people will enable your child to take a break when they need it. You might need to make sure family and friends know that your child might need this time and could they please respect their needs.
Take an ipad/ headphones or something that can help your child focus away from the noise of the party: This way when it gets too much they can pop on their headphones/ ipad, play non messy craft, stimming devices, weighted blankets etc and escape whilst they wind down. Yes it might appear a little anti social to people who don’t understand but its better than having a meltdown. Try explaining to people briefly that your child needs a break from all the festivities.
Take your child comfort toy: If your child has favourite calming toy or app make sure that you take this as well. This can be a distraction or redirection to them to the familiar. Christmas is full of so many changes that having something familiar around can really help.
Consider a play buddy for your child : If there is a child, possibly an older relative who will play quietly with yoru child when they need a break, pre arrange with thsi child what they might like to play with yoru child to assist.
Prepare your child for touch and social interactions: If your child does not like touch or is overwhelmed by sensory touch it is a good idea to prepare them for relatives or friends who might want to hug or kiss them. Where possible explain these relatives how this might upset your child and request they greet in another way. This is not always possible though so it is good to explain to child that people may want to hug or kiss them, give them some ideas about what they can if this happens. If they really don’t like hugs suggest they give a high five.
Finally if your child has meltdown try to remain relaxed and calm, its not a reflection on you as a parent it’s a reflection on the environment, noise, and expectations Christmas puts on children.
Do what you can to reduce the noise, and the amount of people around them and be in tune to what in the environment might be distressing them, lights, Christmas tree decorations etc and finally consider putting yourself in your child’s shoes and then meeting their needs with the wisdom of a parent. Try to not to show your distress or anxiety as this will only communicate to your child that there is a need to be anxious if you are.
Most of all take some time out for yourself, Christmas can be a wonderful time of year it can also be overwhelming for parents. Finally Happy Holidays!!!