As we head into the holidays each year, I always find that my anticipation and excitement is tempered by my concerns about my kids—and how they will manage with disrupted routines, less sleep than usual, and way more stimulation. Because while the holidays are fun, they are also a lot for little ones to handle, which can be particularly difficult for toddlers, who so thrive on routine.
The holidays can also be hard for kids on the spectrum or those with sensory sensitivities—so I'm happy that I was able to partner with the Lurie Center for Autism at Mass General Hospital for Children to share some advice on how we can make the holidays more manageable for all of our kids. Gillian Erhabor, PhD and licensed clinical psychologist, conducts and supervises the neuropsychological assessment of children within the early childhood period—and is also mom to a two year old. I chatted with her about how to manage schedules, travel, and stimulation during this time of year.
Q: What are a few ways that parents can help to keep a semblance of a routine during holidays when normal schedules are disrupted?
A: Parents are encouraged to establish brief morning and evening holiday routines that can be easily implemented regardless of location. For instance, reading the same holiday-inspired book before bedtime each night is a nice and easy way to maintain some level of consistency and familiarity for your child. While away, established non-holiday specific routines such as tooth-brushing before bedtime should also be maintained as much as possible. Given the changes in routine, children on the autism spectrum who utilize visual schedules will rely on their schedules now more than ever, so be sure to bring them with you on vacation!
Q: Do you have advice for parents of kids who are sensitive to lights and noise, but still want to participate in holiday events?
A: Remaining mindful of your child’s sensory sensitivities will make life a lot easier for both your child and family during the bustling holiday season. Try to limit taking your child on unnecessary trips to busy environments that can be triggering and uncomfortable (e.g. the mall) and provide them with sensory supports when trips such as these are unavoidable. For instance, many children with autism benefit from noise canceling headphones. Also, parents are encouraged to check with their autism resource centers regarding local sensory-friendly holiday activities.
Q: What can a parent do to make traveling, particularly on planes, less stressful for sensitive kids?
A: Previewing upcoming changes and new activities for children on the autism spectrum is extremely important. For example, previewing with your child far in advance what air travel will entail (e.g., airport security clearance, waiting in line, and sitting for extended periods of time) will be helpful. This can be done using visual supports, such as a social story. Packing your carry-on bag with both familiar and novel travel-friendly activities/toys/snacks will help keep your child comfortable and occupied throughout the trip. In general, holiday travel is not the time strictly limit your child’s use of electronics. One look around the airport will reveal that most people–neurotypical children and adults included–enjoy the use of electronics during travel. Furthermore, escaping into a preferred movie or video game will help alleviate potentially triggering aspects of the sensory-packed travel experience. Most importantly–be prepared! Keep your portable tablet charger handy and download plenty of your child’s preferred movies/games/television shows prior to departure.
Q: How can parents help other relatives prepare to spend time with kids who might not be at their best?
A: Receiving unsolicited, yet well-intentioned parenting advice from relatives is often a difficult and vulnerable position in which parents of children with special needs find themselves. Relatives may offer parenting strategies (e.g., “just tell him no”) that are designed for neurotypical children and generally ineffective for children on the autism spectrum. Thus, parents are encouraged to come prepared with a polite; yet, boundary-setting response that both acknowledges the relative’s input; yet, detracts from further discourse. Oftentimes, family members do not know what to say or how to help, so parents may choose to preview with relatives what their child is likely to struggle with during the holidays and specific ways in which family members can provide support.
Q: Are there any children's books you can recommend that touch on this subject that might help explain things in a way that little ones can understand?
A: Several well written and kid-friendly books that address this topic are below.
All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer
A Friend like Simon by Kate Gaynot
I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism by Pat Thomas
Autism Is...? by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan
Thanks so much to Gillian for this awesome advice. We'll for sure be implementing a few of these strategies during our own travels and I hope this helps your families as well.