Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
When my son was young, our family absolutely dreaded the two-week Christmas break. Just as he was finally settled into the daily routine of school and all its expectations, everything changed. He was a child who thrived in routine and structure and was easily overwhelmed by the sensory challenges of holiday excitement. While many kids we have known looked forward to those weeks as a time to decompress from the stress of school, our child asked daily "Can I go back to school tomorrow?" So we held our breaths and barreled through those weeks, praying for some calm days and more happy moments than meltdowns.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) cope best with daily routine and structure. Clear expectations and preparation for any possible detour in routine are important. While some kids appreciate the decompression time afforded by a break from school or other activities, some are more impacted by the stress of the change in the norm. Over time, we found that a daily plan that involved reading, play, quiet time, and meals helped him get through those weeks until he could go back to his preferred school routine. We kept a consistent and structured schedule as regularly as possible.
When we did venture out for holiday parties or visits with family and friends, we did our best to accommodate the need for a safe, quiet escape when we knew he was feeling overwhelmed by the sensory overload of the loud crowds, the Christmas lights, the smells, and the constant activity. Many times our planning was successful. Many times, unfortunately, we had to leave parties or cancel last minute plans because of the impact on our son. It was not always easy to explain to people that we were leaving... NOW... and could not stay a little longer and have dessert. It was sometimes embarrassing and frustrating to cope with meltdowns that happened because we pushed things a little too far, hoping he would be okay this time. We felt guilty for putting him into situations we knew were difficult for him. He could not see himself slowly becoming overwhelmed and recognize the cues that a meltdown was imminent... that was our job as parents, and sometimes we failed to advocate for him the way he needed.
It took many years of frustration, hoping, trying, crying, and ultimately having to abstain from certain activities before we truly understood what was happening. It took several more years to make the necessary changes and to allow for him to learn to adapt and enjoy some of the places and situations and to accept that there would be some things he may never be able to handle.
Now that he is a teenager, he mostly chooses the activities himself. He does not enjoy packed Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, so he chooses not to attend. He enjoys small parties with family and friends who understand he may begin feeling overloaded and needs time to himself to regenerate. While we still make some choices for him (like occasionally forcing dinner with extended family, which pulls him out of his comfort zone), we now encourage him to advocate for himself. We gave him the option to attend a New Year's Eve party with friends and he has accepted. He may decide at the last minute that it is not something he can handle that day. Or he may last an hour and decide he can't make it to midnight. And we will have an escape plan for that.
The holiday break is much less stressful because we have learned to take cues from him, allowed him to advocate for himself, and embraced his need to avoid or limit certain experiences. Sometimes we are even sad when the break has ended and everyone goes back to school!