Happy Holidays everyone!
We are getting closer and closer to that special time of the year and I have received numerous questions from parents about managing stress and anxiety in their child with autism or intellectual disability. Recently, I received a question about helping children with autism cope with transitions between homes for the holidays when the parents are divorced; such an excellent question.
It seems that one of the most important and often dwelt upon major issues faced by divorced parents is splitting time for their children between respective homes. The court order usually stipulates how time is to be split and most parents, especially very litigious couples, adhere to the order. This is especially true around the holidays and can take on an especially significant meaning as the holidays carry their own unique brand of emotional baggage and importance. The holidays are a time for bonding and reaffirming family ties as well as creating special memories of the family. For divorced families, the children will often split holidays with one going to one home for a holiday and to the other home for the next. However, the impacts on the child are often very great emotionally and psychologically depending on the relationships they experience with their parents individually now they are divorced and as a family unit. The same stands for their relationships with their siblings and how those siblings relate to their parents. The diplomacy and complex web of relationships in divorced families is beyond the scope of this post, however it is critical to remember that your child with autism or intellectual disability is as much a part of these matters as any other child and warrants special consideration.
1. Be MINDFUL of how you project your feelings, thoughts, and how you act around the holidays! Children often find themselves stuck between parents, especially litigious ones involved in high conflict divorce, as a sort of pawn in the overall legal conflict, especially around time with respective parents. For your child with autism and in general, be very aware how you convey your personal feelings about how the holidays should be spent or if you disagree with the other parent. The holidays are difficult enough for managing sensory stimulation let alone having to manage trying to interpret their parents’ messages about how the other celebrates the holidays. This point is especially true prior to the child transitioning homes and can carry extra emotional volatility for parents who would rather have the child with them.
2. ROUTINE! Children with autism, due to numerous different factors including limited cognitive shifting, executive planning, and processing (to say a few) are very focused on routines for maintaining equilibrium. Prior to having your child for the holidays, learn their routine including are there any special traditions they like, shows such as holiday specials they watch, certain foods or activities such as going to see Santa Claus at the mall or going to synagogue for a Channukah party? These are critical and help keep a sense of normalcy for the child when the transition occurs.
3. Speaking of normalcy, there may be times that your child with autism or intellectual disability may have to spend a certain holiday they would normally spend with one parent with another. As odious as it may seem to some divorced parents, communication and education around holiday traditions and activities will be critical to helping your child adjust and make the holidays pleasurable for you both. HINT: It cannot hurt to emulate some of their traditions from the other household while incorporating your own to provide a level of routine that gives comfort.
4. PLAN AHEAD!! This point cannot be stressed enough. If you know there is going to be an upheaval in where the holidays will be spent, inform your child in advance and give them plenty of time to adjust to the concept. This can be difficult and requires you to revisit point number 1: be aware of how you handle your responses! Remember that your child cannot adjust quickly like you can. They need reassurance and calm, collected, PLANFUL assistance to adjust.
5. USE A SOCIAL STORY! Creating a social story around the holidays, especially if they will be spending them in a new way, or especially if the parents celebrate different holidays, can ease with the transition and help the child gain an idea of what to expect so he/she can plan. Read my post on social stories for more information under older posts.
6. ASK YOUR CHILD WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO THE AT THE HOLIDAYS! Many children with autism and other developmental disabilities approach the holidays with a tremendous sense of magical wonder and engage in activities or behaviors that allow them to elicit the sense of feeling to the greatest extent, much like we do. If you are new to spending a holiday with your child with autism, ask the other parent, but first ask them! Share and learn from them!
7. Remember that the holidays are NOT the time to be engaging in a legal power struggle. Being caught between two parents and feeling like you have to walk on eggshells to please both or if you are not in a positive relationship with one or both, is very difficult as it is, but for your child with autism, having to manage that stress can lead to a meltdown. So to repeat point one, DON’T!
8. To recap points one and seven, depending on the relationship you have with your child, they may not be too enthusiastic about spending the holidays with you. Do not get discouraged and remember it has a great deal to do with the difficulties of adjustment as much as it does with your relationship with them. Focus as much as you can on giving them a safe and pleasurable experience.
9. BE ON TIME! This aspect is crucial and must be incorporated into the social story as the actual transition will determine to a great degree whether the holiday will progress smoothly or not. The actual transition needs to be smooth and timely. I have seen too many instances when what was supposed to be a pleasurable experience becomes disastrous because a parent was late and an altercation ensued, which killed the mood. Points one and seven again: when you lose control so does your child with autism, except they have a much harder time regaining their composure.
10. GET INVOLVED IN YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY! Find out where holiday events for children with autism or developmental disabilities are being held. Many times they are specifically organized to take these unique needs into account and can provide a pleasurable experience filled with fun memories for everyone. You can find several HERE.
The above points are only supposed to be an overview and not all encompassing. I hope you find them useful and remember that you can do this as a parent! Happy holidays and I hope you all have a lovely time with your child with autism!