Monday, December 6, 2010

Tis the Season…To have a meltdown!

I’m one of those holiday-crazed people. I love the madness of midnight shopping, can’t wait to decorate my house from top to bottom, love buying coordinating holiday outfits, want to attend each and every activity and always want my pine tree candle burning. It’s an understatement to say I love the holiday season.

My holiday dreams are often a horrible nightmare for individuals on the spectrum. They often rely heavily on routine and predictability. So it’s no wonder they aren’t thrilled with the gatherings of rarely seen friends and family, the strange smell of a fresh tree in their usual comfort zone (home), mom’s insistence on wearing the brand new shirt or their neighborhood Target being overrun. Even receiving gifts can be no fun for some individuals.

So… how do you, your family and your family member(s) on the spectrum enjoy the holidays? Answer… anticipate and prepare!!! Here are a few tips to help you enjoy and survive the holiday season.

The perfect holiday photo

30 minutes before family pictures, is not the time to introduce a freshly pressed, never before worn (or seen) shirt, take them to a foreign location and expect them to smile on command.

Instead, consider allowing your child to wear the outfit around the house a time or two. If they happen to stain the shirt before the pictures are snapped, it’s really no big deal. These days we have this little thing called Photoshop.

One of the best ways to alleviate clothing wars is to involve your child as much as possible. Take them shopping with you, give them choices, etc. This will not only ensure they can handle the fabric, but can help them gain some sense of control over the situation and often relieves a great deal of anxiety. If you don’t have this option, allow them to wear something underneath or don’t have them put it on until right before pictures.

If you have a child who dislikes being in front of the camera, get them involved early. Practice taking pictures, or try and interest them in getting behind the camera. I also suggest having pictures taken in a familiar setting, alleviating unforeseen distractions both positive and negative.

Lastly, think about what you’re trying to portray in your picture. I don’t know about you, but my favorite photos aren’t the perfectly posed, fake smile photos. Instead they’re the photos that allow me a glimpse into the personalities of the family. Hence… if your child is always twisting his hair, squinting one eye, or carrying around a Thomas Train… let it be.

Gatherings and holiday crowds.

Prepare, Pack and Plan

Prepare… As much as you can, prepare them for what’s to come. Show them pictures of extended family you plan to visit, locations you’ll be going, sights and sounds they’re likely to see. Talk about it, draw it, whatever you can to limit surprises.

Pack… Holiday gatherings can quickly turn into sensory overload. Make sure to pack your child’s sensory soothers. This is not the day to forget the chewy tube, or expect them to sit through dinner with out their weighted blanket.

Plan… Make a schedule. Include choices and breaks for your child throughout the gathering. You want to give your child an opportunity for a “break” before the meltdown. Keep in mind the first to arrive is often the first to leave. Arriving early means less people, less noise, and shorter lines. It also allows you to sneak out early with out feeling badly. When at all possible, leave before your child is “done”. This will help you in the future by imprinting a positive or at least tolerable impression in your child’s mind. Just in case you don’t make it to the car before the meltdown… always, always have an escape plan. A simple signal or secret code to your spouse may be all you need to escape in just the nick of time.

Pine and Cinnamon

Fresh tress and scented candles are inevitable during the holidays. When it comes to this issue, I say... pick your battles. If this means a fake tree and forgoing the candles, it’s a battle I’m wiling to surrender.


Practicing how to receive a gift is something all children need to do. This can be even more challenging with individuals on the spectrum. Let’s face it… they’re usually horrible liars. Why on earth would they say thank you to a gift they hate or already have. If your child is able, you can practice prior to the big day. Role-play, draw a behavior map, help them come up with a standard response, whatever it takes.

If this isn’t a possibility, you can prep the gift givers in advance for what you suspect is going to occur. If they care enough about your child to give them a gift, they should care enough to understand. If not…consider forgoing that gift all together.

As exciting as gifts are, they’re still new and unexpected. Allow your child time to adjust to the gift. Don’t expect them to like it right away. Give them time in between gifts to process. The presents will still be under the tree on the 26th, 27th, 28th and so on.

It all comes down to this…

What do you want more? To show up to your aunts house with your child dressed to the nines but crawling out of his skin and unable to regulate, OR… a child in his usual shirt with chewy tube tied to the collar, regulating independently and remaining calm while you introduce him to yet another unfamiliar relative whom he won’t see again until next year?

If you’re like me, you want it all. But before you make the decision to have your cake and eat it too, you better think about how much time you plan to spend in the kitchen. Are you going to create this “cake” from scratch, or make a few concessions and buy a box? As for me… I plan to make a few from scratch, buy many, many boxes and forgo some all together.

I wish you and yours a safe holiday season filled with joy and less stress.

Kate Andersen

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