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Winter break from school gives families a reprieve from battles over homework and schedules wrought with deadlines and time constraints; however, two weeks of unpredictable routines, sensory overloads and changes at every turn can wreak havoc on nearly any family.  But, take a deep breath and consider some of the things that you can do to offset the challenges you might be expecting. These include:

1.    Avoid Saturdays at the malls like the plague and let cyber-shopping be your friend. The chaos, noise of large crowds, and long lines will not only stress your child out, but even you yourself.

2.    Before you leave the house for trips, parties, or parades, have a quick “family meeting” to review the expectations and show off some of the visuals that you’ve created to make the day as structured as possible. Create a daily calendar that includes family gatherings, parties, or day trips.

3.   For kids with sensory sensitivities, be sure to have items that they might need in tow at all times. This could include things like ear plugs or headphones for noisy environments, spinners, chewy foods, or a small container of clay or playdoh.

4.    Don’t get yourself into situations where the family has to rush to get to someplace without enough time. Kids on the spectrum, particularly, hate being rushed and can easily be thrown into a pit of anger. Then, there’s no telling what will come next. Be sure to provide a head’s up about changes and transitions, and don’t forget to leave enough time to enjoy the journey.

5.    If you plan to visit with family members you rarely see, spend time looking through photos or at family home videos prior to your visit. Play memory games, matching names to faces, which will help your child feel more comfortable with people they haven’t spent time with in a while.

6.   For those who can easily become over-stimulated, pay close attention to the holiday decorations you choose. Twinkling lights in every room, combined with foreign smells from the kitchen and foods that aren’t normally offered at mealtime, can become too much to bear. Letting kids be a helper in the decorating process can offer them the opportunity to show you where their line of limitation stands.

7.   Speaking of mealtime, if your child has food sensitivities or allergies, shop and pre-cook alternative foods in advance. You can never be too prepared for a relative or neighbor who shows up with a basket filled with gluten-packed goods.

8.   Kids want to feel connected to the holidays too. Include your child in the planning and implementation process of pulling off a great holiday experience. Give them jobs to do, like stirring the cake batter, folding napkins, or making sure everyone’s pie has a dollop of Cool-Whip. Shower their assistance with praise – this is not a time for correcting or straightening, but for acceptance and recognition.

9.    Relax your expectations and definitions of what a true holiday season should include. Most of us do not need a full blown exhausting experience to reflect that we had a good time. A few positive minutes and memories made of smiling children can be as priceless as a golden doubloon.

10.  Family routines change drastically during winter break. Bedtimes are later, meals happen when they can, and therapy schedules may not exist at all. A few days before heading back to school, make sure to get your house on track by putting your normal routine back in place. After all, it may take the whole family a few days to adjust, making January a bit easier on everyone.

As parents, sometimes we feel like we need to do it all. During this time of the year, focus on relaxing your own expectations of what is fun for the kids, and simply enjoy the moments that you’re given – and ENJOY.

It’s tough enough to find holiday gifts for kids who are into everything, but for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have a tendency to have more than narrow interests, holiday shopping can be as stressful as having grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and neighbors all in your house at the same time. You search and search to find the coolest toys, most fashionable t-shirts and video games that you just “know” any kid would love, just to find it hidden under a mountain of wrapping paper in the corner of the living room well after everyone has exited. Yep, our kids aren’t generally hip to the latest and greatest, give a hoot about fashion or find enjoyment in a video game that requires two or more players. SO, if you want your child to actually “like” what you’ve found for them this holiday season, there are some things to consider while you’re doing the shopping; not afterwards as he looks at it, reminds you that it’s not what he asked for and leaves it where he found it. Accept a Request – If your child is verbal and tells you what he wants, no matter how many of the same thing he already has or how obsessive he tends to be about it, if you want to please your child, just get it. No, don’t go overboard and make it a holiday gift giving theme, but an item of high desire goes a really long way in bringing pleasure to the tough to please kid. And even though it might give “you” anxiety to purchase yet another one of whatever it is, he’ll love it. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? Target Special Interests – Kids with autism tend to have very specific interests or topics. Telling Grandma to purchase your child something because “you” think he should expand his repertoire isn’t going to create a warm and fuzzy feeling when the gift is opened and he says “But this isn’t what I wanted.” Save the desire that you have for him to expand his horizons for another time and give the gifts that will warm his little heart and make Grandma smile as she sees her grandson as happy as he can be when he opens her gift. Think Outside the Box (literally) – As said before, kids with ASD may not have an attraction to the most fashionable of gifts, but they might have a high interest in things that wouldn’t make an average kid take a second look. For kids who love to take things apart and put them back together again, a small tool set might be the answer. For kids who love things that are a certain color, go “blue” crazy. For kids who live and die by the Ipad, maybe it’s a new Ipad cover and a few new apps. And of course, what kid wouldn’t just LOVE a few big empty boxes to climb around in? It doesn’t really have to be complicated; just think about what your child spends their day loving and go with it. Books, CDs, DVDs, etc are great, but make sure it’s specific to your child’s area of interest. Giving them a book on space travel when they have absolutely no interest in inner or outer space isn’t going to do much except see your money sit on the bookshelf of their bedroom. If you don’t find enough books on your child’s area of interest in the bookstore, check out Amazon for a much greater variety. Monetary Gifts (and other Collector Items) – Now I know what you’re going to say… Money??!! Lots of kids with ASD are “collectors” and coins can be one of those things. $10 worth of coins can go a long way, especially if your kid likes to examine and categorize them. Plus this is a really cool gift that even the pickiest of siblings will be jealous over. If your kid loves cars, give them a 6 pack of Hot Wheels; if they love Mighty Beans, a dollar store is the place to go; and of course many kids with ASD just can’ t have enough legos and since these can be over-the-top in price, E-bay just might be the answer to your prayers. Don’t Forget the Senses – Holiday gift giving doesn’t have to be about toys or clothes. For the sensory quirky kid, a basket full of sensory items could be the ticket to utter bliss. Weighted items, fidgets, vibrating gadgets, lotions, scented oils, “chewelry”, and a ball they can bounce on to their heart’s content, can bring holiday cheer to the whole family. Having a child with ASD in your home who’s truly content, even for short blasts of time, is a holiday gift that keeps on giving. Instead of trying to change who your kids are this holiday season by purchasing gifts that “broaden their horizons”, do yourself and your child a favor, and give them what they love. Chances are it’ll not only bring a smile to their face, but a savings to your wallet as well.

Reducing Holiday Anxiety for Your Child 
It’s not uncommon for kids and adults with autism to struggle with anxiety, even under conditions that many of us feel are festive. What’s viewed as exciting for some people can be a recipe for disaster for another.

Preparing your kids for changes in routines, mealtimes, and impending visits from relatives they’ve never seen before, goes a long way in helping the season stay as “merry and bright” as possible.

Tips on How to Make Peace a Reality:

  1. If at all possible, plan ahead – especially in situations that have a tendency to increase levels of stress. Social stories of what’s to come can be reviewed daily or as often as needed. Pull out old home movies from previous holidays that show your family having a great time or enjoying a peaceful holiday afternoon. Remind your child that one of the core elements of this time of the year is “peace.”
  2. Since we typically have way too many things crammed into the few days just prior to most religious holidays, do your shopping before school lets out for winter break. That way once the kids are home from school, life can be as calm as possible. Take advantage of those few weeks of break to slow down, not speed up.
  3. Try not to use language that includes things like “We must.. We have to.. We’re late..” etc. As we know, demands and timelines are often stressful in and of themselves. Prepare in advance so that when it’s time to run out the door to get to Grandma’s on time, you’re in no more rush as you would be if you were going grocery shopping on an average day.
  4. For kids who are easily overstimulated by sights and sounds, keep holiday music to a lower volume than your festive neighbor. Instead of having the house with the brightest set of holiday lights, maybe just a string or two will do. If you do hang lights at this time of the year, seek your child’s assistance. Helping the family hang lights can offer a great way for your child to feel involved in the holiday preparation.
  5. If you decorate a tree in your home, let your child hang the ornaments and don’t worry if the balance isn’t just-so. You can fix it when they go to bed, or just leave it alone if “you” can take it.
  6. Online shopping can be a gift in itself, especially for last minute purchases. This will help keep both you and your child from having to battle crowded malls and department stores. If it’s too late for shipping, use online store websites to get gift ideas before heading to the stores; that way when you do have to face the crowds, you already know what you need so that you can get in and out in a jiffy.
  7. If your plans are to have a houseful of company during the holidays, talk to your child in advance and let them know that it’s ok if they need to retreat into their room when things get to be a bit too much to handle. Let them know that even you become overwhelmed by the chaos that sometimes plays out. If you’re visiting others, talk to the host in advance of your arrival and ensure that there will be a space where they can take a chill-out break if needed.
  8. Take time to write a letter or an email to family and friends who may be visiting. Let them know about some of the things that may challenge your child when things don’t follow their normal routine. If you’ve got a child who tends to say exactly what he/she thinks, let the family know that as well. Tell them that his intentions are not to offend, but just to comment on his observation. This will soften the blow when he says something that can leave a grandma’s mouth agape.
  9. Develop a daily schedule for your child, especially if part of your holiday ritual is to visit multiple homes in one day’s time. Let them know approximately how long you’ll be at each location – but be sure not to be too precise, or else they’ll be pulling on your skirt every 5 minutes reminding you that it’s time to go.
  10. Remember to allow time to let them be kids. If she opens all her gifts and leaves them on the floor just to go play with something that she’s had for 5 years, it’s ok. Sometimes kids on the spectrum need time to acclimate to new toys before they actually begin to explore and enjoy them.

Above all else, sit back (at least for a little while), read or cook with your child as a way to slow things down and truly enjoy who they are and what this holiday season is all about. After all, those are the memories that remain with us for a lifetime.