5 Ingredients You Need for Holiday Success with Special Needs

Preparing for the holiday season is difficult for any family. We spend a lot of time trying to answer questions like “Is it my turn to host?”, “What do I get him that he doesn’t already have?”, or “I hope my sister-in law remembers my kid’s allergies!”  We can all relate to these questions to some degree.

5 Ingredients You Need for Holiday Success with Special Needs

Based on my work with families over the past 13 years, we know it can be twice as hard when trying to plan when one of your children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or another developmental disability. This already demanding time of year gets more complex. If you are feeling stressed, here are five small ingredients to hopefully make your holiday celebrations a little more manageable.

Ingredient 1:

Be mindful of traditions

In my work as a mental health counselor, I can’t tell you the number of times a client has come in after the holiday and said, “Mr. Chris! My mom dragged me to my aunt’s house for Christmas then she didn’t even have ___ like she usually does!” Traditions, or routines, are very important to people on the spectrum.

Think ahead to ask about the setup of the holiday this year: will there still be ___, how many people will be there, is grandma making ___? If there are going to be some different aspects to the holiday, use phrases like, “We have to be flexible this year,” “What if….”, or “It’s important to….” These phrases address core deficits in ASD such as perspective-taking and executive functioning. Yes, these are not easy ideas to understand, and it may take some time for your child to accept the changes.

With repetition, review, and support of the new plan, he/she will feel more at ease. The more aware you can be as a parent of what the plan is for this year’s holiday, the better prepared you can help your child be as well.

Ingredient 2:

Make an escape plan (for you and your child)

Passage of time is a hard concept for many young people to understand. What does, “We will leave when everyone else is ready to leave” really mean? Being around a lot of people, possibly in a new(er) environment, can be overwhelming for a person with ASD regardless if he/she has been there before. Planning with your child as to where he/she can go to take some space or have some downtime is extremely important for sensory needs and the overall ability to self-regulate.

Think of it like this: when we are at work and we need a break, we get up and change our environments (we get a cup of coffee, we walk over to a coworker’s desk, we leave to use the restroom). Here is the crucial part–we come back. Part of this plan with your child has to be the “coming back part” and helping them to know and feel when their body is ready to “come back” into the setting which they left. Using phrases like, “When you are feeling calm,” “When your mind is not a racy,” or “When your body feels ready to be a part of things again,” can help. Let them know you will check on them in 5 min, 10 min, 15 min.

If after 15 minutes, they are still not ready, you can say, “Well I need to take a break too, so I’ll stay with you until you are ready.” What this is doing is slowly introducing another person back into his/her world so the child can start to readjust to having people around.

This idea of taking a break is essential for a child’s body and can teach him/her to identify when his/her body is feeling ready to reenter a social situation.

Ingredient 3:

Talk about the “what if’s”

We have all been there. We have all gotten that gift we really didn’t want or that obvious “regift” from our distant–or not so distant­­–relative. What do we do in times like that?  We think to ourselves, “Oh man, what am I going to do with this?” and then we smile and say thank you. For children who are rigid thinkers, who get stuck in their plan, who maybe are blurters, this concept of holding things in their thought bubble can be difficult.

This topic is critical for parents and professionals to address with kids and adolescents this time of year. Giving them a plan or a script of what to say if they don’t get that perfect present from their aunt may be a good thing. Sitting close to them as they open the presents may also be a smart idea in case they need a little “hand on the knee” prompt. I often talk with our families about reinforcing the positive social behaviors that used.

For example, if Brendan can hold that “Oh man,” thought in a thought bubble and move on from the gift he really didn’t want, he can earn “X.” We all need and use reinforcers in various ways. I believe strongly in reinforcing individuals for using their social competencies, ESPECIALLY when in a social situation like family holidays. 🙂

Ingredient 4:

Stress Management – For you, not them

I talk with parents all the time about putting themselves in “time out” for just a little bit. This tip is vital for a successful holiday season. Make a plan to visit with your girlfriends, go to the movies with your spouse, do a cookie exchange….do something for YOU. If you are not in a good place, you will not be able to support your child during this crazy time of year.

Your own mental health and stress management is so important to acknowledge and plan for during the holiday season. Parents are their children’s best model. By making time for your mental health, even during stressful times, you are modeling how to self-regulate and modulate your emotions for your child.

Let your child know why you must get out of the house for a little bit. Let his/her know what the “why” behind you baking cookies for others is (this would also be a great perspective-taking exercise). By modeling how you self-regulate your emotions when under stress, you are teaching your children that stress is okay, as long as you know how to cope and move through your stress.


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Ingredient 5:

Presents – this is always the sugar of this time of year

Getting presents can be stressful for a child or adolescent with ASD. Often, my clients will share with me, “Mr. Chris, if my mom and dad don’t get me what I want, I am just going to lose it.” I come back to them and say, “Lose what? What would you lose if you don’t get what (or don’t get everything) you wanted”?  To my surprise, more often than not, that question makes them pause and think.

As a parent, grandparent, family-friend, when thinking about what to get that special someone, remember two things:

1). It doesn’t always have to be the biggest present. As adults, we want to sometimes give the biggest or best gift. However, even though we think something is the best, it does not always mean the person you are buying for will think its the best. Think small to medium size gift. The one “big present” may be something they know is coming.

2).Think enthusiasm, not practical (there are other times of year for the practical). I worked with a family for years around this topic and they always wanted to buy their son new undershirts. As we talked and processed this present, it turned out they were buying the undershirt more for them instead of him.

As people get older and can better appreciate those “practical” gifts, that’s when to go for them. As a child and even an adolescent, the idea and meaning behind undershirts are at a one on a 1-10 excitement scale (this ranking holds true even into adulthood, to be honest). This time of year should be about one’s enthusiasms and their loves. And there is nothing wrong with buying dinosaurs if your son or daughter loves dinosaurs! Embrace the aspects of them that we know will bring joy and excitement to the day.

The holidays are a magical time of year, but also one of the most stressful at the same time. If we can prepare both ourselves and those we love, we can have a more successful and enjoyable holiday season.

From all of us at the Social Learning Center, happy holidays.

This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together

Chris Abildgaard

Chris Abildgaard, LPC, NCC, NCSP , is the owner and director of the Social Learning Center, LLC. located in Cheshire, CT, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of St. Joseph located in West Hartford, CT. He has been in private practice for over 13 years. Chris is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, a board-certified national counselor, and a licensed professional counselor with a specialization in autism spectrum disorders. Chris earned a Graduate Certificate from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Behavioral Interventions in Autism and is currently pursuing his doctorate of Education (EdD) in School Psychology from Loyola University. For more information visit Instagram: @sociallearningctr and LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/chrisabildgaardslc

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