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Autism & The Holidays: Visitors and Visiting

Autism & The Holidays: Visitors and Visiting

The holidays are times for celebrating with family and friends, so naturally there are a lot more gatherings and social interaction than usual. This can obviously be a big source of stress for many people with autism.

There might be more people visiting your home which can cause a big disruption to the home routine. Social pressures are intensified at these times of year, and there’s a whole lot of sensory overload.

So as part of your holiday preparations, thinking ahead about the things you can do while visiting others or having visitors in your home can really reduce this stress so that everyone can join in and enjoy the celebration.

Prepare to visit others

Try to limit the number of outings if you can, and space them out with downtime in between to rest and recover.

For people that you only visit once a year, don’t assume that the kids remember who those people are. So refresh their memories - talk about the people, look through photos so the faces become a bit more familiar, and see if you can get pictures of the place you’ll be visiting too.

Make a portable relief kit to take with you. Keep it stocked and ready to go, with things that help soothe or distract like fidgets, weighted blankets, stim objects, preferred foods, and sensory protection like headphones or sunglasses.

Make an exit strategy before you go visiting. Decide with your kids or partner what the signal will be that it’s time to leave, and let family know ahead of time that you might have to leave early or suddenly.

Prepare family for your visit

Help create a safe and accepting space at family gatherings by explaining needs ahead of time, and ask for accommodations that might help you or your kids to feel less overwhelmed during the visit. Give family a heads up about any new or unusual behaviours so they understand what to expect and have time to ask questions.

Make sure you explain how to use any communication aids or devices, and maybe suggest topics for prompting conversations.

Prepare to have visitors

Take a break from all the cleaning and baking to make sure the kids understand what’s about to happen. Explain things like:

  • Who will be visiting
  • Why they are coming
  • When they are coming
  • How long they will stay
  • What everyone will do while they’re here
  • What will happen after they leave

That last one is really important and often overlooked because we assume that kids understand that life will return to normal after visitors have left. But this may not be an automatic thing for some kids, especially literal and rigid thinkers. So explaining all of that upfront can provide a lot of reassurance to ease the stress that all the change can bring.

On the day of the visit

Add structure to the day, especially free time before and after meals. Have a plan, and use visual supports like schedules and timers if they help. Organize supervision so you know exactly who will be watching the kids and when (many accidents occur from confusion about who was supposed in charge).

Watch for signs of overload:

  • Talking loudly
  • Irritability, angry outbursts
  • Increased risk taking
  • Being overactive or inattentive
  • Breathing and skin colour changes
  • Covering eyes and ears
  • Removing clothes
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tension
  • Clumsiness

Try to head off meltdowns before they start to build and step in immediately to reduce input, provide protection or exit the situation.

Set up a safe space so there’s somewhere quiet for a sensory break or some 1:1 social interaction. Soft chairs, calming music, favourite movies, fidgets or weighted blankets can all help make a place for recharging. Keep the space exclusively for this use so there’s always a spot for respite if someone needs it. If space is tight and you can’t find a dedicated space, grab a fitted sheet and try the sensory cocoon trick on the sofa.

Oh and don’t force people to pose for photos if they find it overwhelming! Opt for natural shots instead or give them the job of being photographer.

Happy holidays everyone!

Want more tips for the holidays? 

Head over to the Downloads page to grab this free guide to planning autism-friendly celebrations

It's packed with over 75 pages of tips about lots of things that can make the holidays challenging for autistic people -

  • sensory challenges
  • routine disruption and change
  • gift giving
  • holiday food and decorations
  • visiting Santa
  • social pressures
  • keeping kids safe

Happy holidays!

This article was first published on 18 November 2016

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