Fall marks the start of cooler weather, back-to-school time…and what many consider to be the start of the holiday season for many secular and faith based celebrations. Depending on personal beliefs and practices, this can mean multiple holiday observances that stretch between the fall and winter seasons. While some of us may anticipate this time with excitement, others feel unease thinking of the stress that can accompany holidays. This can be especially true for individuals with Autism and Developmental Disabilities, who may face additional challenges brought on by the season. How can we make the holidays a little easier on everyone? Preparation is key for many people with disabilities, and for neurotypical people as well!
Major holidays involve the disruption of normal routines and activities, with closures of schools, day programs, or employment sites. For some people with Autism and DD, these changes cause varying levels of anxiety. Preparing them for upcoming changes can reduce this anxiety by providing a plan for what is to come. Using what works best for a person–whether it be a conversation, social story, visual schedule, or calendar– make sure to provide information about changes to their typical routine. Communicate what will happen in place of regular activities. Where you can, give people the opportunity to take an active role in planning those activities. Not only does this provide them with a sense of control, it encourages them to participate in the events that they helped plan. Many people enjoy having a say in what decorations are used, what food will be served at a gathering, or what music might be played. One person I support is the official DJ at all the holiday parties at his home, a role he cherishes! Big or small, decisions like these can make a holiday that much more enjoyable for someone.
Also consider the environmental factors that may influence success during a celebration. Overstimulation is a common experience for many people with Autism and Developmental Disabilities and the holidays tend to be full of triggering situations. Think of the music, lights, crowds, loud conversations, having company come to the house…all of these tend to be part of the holiday experience. To support a person best, know their triggers and plan out how best to cope with them. For example, if crowds are an issue, you’ll want to consider if certain places should be avoided–malls come to mind–or time a visit when it might be quieter, with less people around. Some decorations might be too overwhelming depending on a person’s sensory needs–they might be too bright, too loud, or just too much. If plans involve going to a party or gathering, how does the person want to take part? Do they prefer sitting quietly on the periphery, or making the rounds around the room? Do they want a trusted person to stay by their side? Figuring out those preferences ahead of time and having a plan in place benefits everyone. While you can’t anticipate every scenario, certainly knowing what has been a challenge in the past and reading a person’s cues in the moment can help you strategize for success.
How a person participates in holiday events may depend on several factors, including what the person wants to do or can tolerate, what types of support is available to them there, and the ability to have a plan B or even a plan C if things don’t work out as expected. For many people having the opportunity to take a break if needed can help calm and regulate heightened emotions and sensory reactions. Identifying where a break can be taken and how that can be supported (alone, with a family member or staff person, etc.) provides them with a chance to regroup and hopefully return to the activity. While encouraging participation is always a good thing, knowing a person’s limitations and respecting what qualifies as a success for them is just as important.
Many wishes for a happy holiday season for all!