Ah, the winter holidays…songs tell us it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but in many cases, it’s the most stressful. Just when our kids are finally settled in their school routine, they get up to two weeks off. Often during this time people travel, visit family and have company. All of these wonderful events represent change and transition for our kids. Even the decorations, lights, and carols can be overwhelming, both because of sensory considerations and because they are different.
Fear not—we at AANE have collected a few tips over the years to help
Practical strategies for traveling or staying at home
- Make a schedule: Knowing what to expect usually comforts our kids. Make a daily schedule and post it. Review the schedule each morning. Don’t overschedule. Build in choices—e.g., 3-5 pm is choice time, you can either read, play a game, or color. Be flexible and depart from the schedule as needed.
- Expect inconsistency: It is the nature of our kids with Asperger’s (AS) and related conditions that they are inconsistent. This means that an intervention that works one day may fail spectacularly the next. So if having quiet reading time after lunch works well on Monday don’t be surprised if it doesn’t fly on Tuesday.
- Divide and conquer: Sometimes it’s best for everyone to go their separate ways—at least the kids, that is. You may have mom take one kid and dad take the other(s). You may consider hiring a sitter for an outing that one kid will love and the other will loathe.
- Build in some grown up time: If you can manage it, try to get a night off. Maybe a date night for you and your spouse/significant other? Maybe an afternoon alone with a book at a café? Maybe you can sneak in a trip to the gym? See if you can fit these small luxuries into your budget. Perhaps the chance to sneak off and see a movie alone while someone else feeds the kids dinner and puts them to bed would make good holiday gift!
Practical strategies with your extended family
- Normalize the chaos: Don’t expect that everything will go perfectly even if you preview, plan and use every strategy in the book. Decide for yourself what is really important and what you can live without. One mom who had been very keen on the perfect family photo in front of the Christmas tree realized that it was truly optional. Some years she gets one and some years she doesn’t.
- Anticipate and decide how to react: Do you already know that your sister-in-law will make comments about your son’s table manners? You may be able to make a pretty good guess based on past behavior. Rather than stewing about your family’s reactions to your child, strategize and come up with some appropriate responses. Practice them until they become automatic.
- Appeal to the family leaders or sympathetic family members: One mother reported that her in-laws had educated themselves and were sympathetic and accommodating. Since they were the senior members of the family, they set the tone and everyone else followed suit. Work on educating the family members whose opinion counts. Or work on the members of your family who have been sympathetic and caring of you and your child. Here are some resources to help out!
- Be realistic: Set realistic expectations for everyone; that includes the kids and the grown-ups. How long will your child really sit at the dinner table? How long will he be able to handle the din of the relatives before needing a break to go into a quiet room and have some down time? Remind yourself and everyone else that this change in routine may be a lot of fun for everyone else, but is likely quite stressful for you child with AS.
- Be realistic (again): You live with your child and are accustomed to her behavior, but your family is not. Even if you gave the, “junior has sensitivity to noise and may need some time to himself,” speech at Thanksgiving, don’t be surprised if you have to repeat it at the next family holiday. And again next year. Remember learning takes time.
- Have an escape plan: Planning a day trip that might be too long for one kid but “just right” for the other? Bring two cars and assign one parent to go home early with the kid who needs it. Or take one car and plan for one parent and the other kids to get a ride home with another relative. Or let the kids who are game for it have an overnight with grandparents or cousins and pick them up tomorrow. Staying with family? Consider how long you and your family can really live in someone else’s home and make adjustments. Do you need to make the vacation a bit shorter? Maybe spend a night or two in a hotel?
- Build in “down time” day. If you're traveling, avoid coming home late Sunday night when everyone has to go back to school and work on Monday. Try and take a day for everyone to have some quiet time at home to re-energize. This should make the transition back to the regular schedule a bit easier.
Holidays can and still will be joyful even if you have to put in work to make it happen. We realize it can be difficult to put more work in at a time when you are doing so much. It can also be difficult to step back from traditions that have meant so much to you. But it is still possible to make this time of the year special for you and your loved ones. Our friend Eileen Riley-Hall tells us how she has tweaked old traditions and created new ones throughout the years. We wish you a season of joy and a new year filled with health and happiness.