Whichever holiday you celebrate in the winter season, it is usually filled with a variety of activities and traditions. I want to help you enjoy the holiday and share what you love about it with your child.
So, I ask you -
What is the one thing that would make you happy this holiday season?
Watching your child open up a present by the tree Christmas morning?
Going to church/synagogue/mosque with your whole family?
Decorating the tree together?
Lighting the candles in the menorah together?
Instead of trying to tackle all of your plans and hoping things will turn out how you want, or giving up on your usual traditions and assuming your child can’t handle it, I encourage you to pick one activity that you would like your child to participate in that would also bring you joy.
Once you have chosen the activity, think about how you can structure it to make it manageable and enjoyable for your child as well. It might look different than what you envisioned and that’s okay.
Here is an example.
Decorating the tree together
If this is what would make your heart sing, think about ways to structure this activity so your child can participate and enjoy the experience. Adding structure to an activity provides a child with lots of information. Let’s say your child has a short attention span and doesn’t seem to have a big interest in the tree. Make sure you have the basics set-up before asking your child to join. This would mean that the tree is already in the stand, the lights are placed on the tree, and the ornaments are ready to hang. Give your child a specific job. Put the ornaments you want your child to hang on the tree in a separate container so they can visually see when they are done. If you have placed 8 ornaments in the container, your child is finished when the 8 ornaments are on the tree.
Other things to consider - do you usually listen to Christmas music while your decorate the tree? If you think this could cause too much stimulation, maybe this year you don’t listen to music while decorating. Or, does your child like one particular song? Then maybe you play this song on a loop as you decorate the tree. It’s called, pick your battles!
Choose a motivator - decorating a tree might be very fun and rewarding to you, but it might not be to your child. Use First/Then to help motivate your child. First - decorate the tree; Then - eat 2 Christmas cookies (or open 1 present, or play with Legos).
Holidays provide us with hundreds of moments to create special memories. To help you enjoy the holidays with your child, remember the words from Winnie The Pooh…
“Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in our hearts”
Winnie The Pooh
For someone with autism or sensory sensitivities, October 31st can be more of a trick than a treat. Halloween includes lots of textures, sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. Also, the daily routine will probably be different. Be sure your child enjoys Halloween with T.R.E.A.T.S.
Read a social story
You know your child best. Honor their individuality and be sensitive to their needs. Think about what’s going to happen at school and at home and have a plan. At school, will there be a parade, a class party, or treats? Reach out to the teacher and work together to make the day enjoyable for your child. If your child is on a restricted diet, can you send in a very special treat that they will enjoy or can you make an exception, with limits, for the day?
Read a Social Story
A social story can help a child understand and cope with a social expectation. Halloween has plenty of situations that a social story can help if implemented correctly. The story should focus on one aspect that your child struggles with and should be written to target that specific issue.
I had a former student who did not like any cartoon characters -- not any!
Spiderman, nope. SpongeBob, nope. Snoopy, nope. Dora, nope. Arthur, nope.
To say that Halloween was a challenge is an understatement!
I wrote a Social Story that we read daily for a few weeks before Halloween. His parents read him the social story to him as well. The social story addressed why he did not like the characters and why other people do like cartoon characters. It also gave strategies that he could use to cope with seeing people in costumes. By Halloween, my student was able to use his coping strategies to enjoy Halloween. He even walked in the parade! (He wanted to be first in line so he didn’t have to “see” the other characters.)
During the holidays, much of what we do comes from what we experienced as a child. Either we want our children to experience what we experienced, or we want to make it “better” for them. Be aware of why you are wanting (or expecting) your child to do something - like trick-or-treating, or dressing up, or going to a holiday party. Is it something that will bring them joy or happiness or is this an expectation you had from your youth (or because everyone else is doing it, or your sister said you should,...).
Also, communicate expectations - with visuals! - clearly to your child. If you are go trick-or-treating, your child might think that it means going to one house. If you have other children and you are planning on going to multiple houses, make sure your child is clear on how long you will be trick-or-treating or how many houses you will visit. Another example is the expectation of candy. Communicate clearly the expectations. How many pieces of candy can your child eat? When can they eat it? Is certain candy restricted? When you are able to be clear on the expectations, everyone is happier and the possibility of a scary Halloween meltdown is lessened.
Adding structure to activities provides a lot of information. And by providing information, you decrease worry and anxiety. And by decreasing worry and anxiety, you increase calm and appropriate behaviors.
There are many ways you can add structure to activities. You can make a visual schedule of the daily activities. Depending on your child’s age and functioning level, this can be with pictures or words.
For example, a schedule for after school might show:
Ideas for adding structure to eating candy:
To add structure to any activity, think about: what, when (the order), how much, and when is it done.
You know your child best and know the what bothers them. Use this information so you can give them the supports they need to be regulated and have a fun Halloween. Once you know where your child might struggle, you can then use the supports above to address their needs.
If your child is perseverating on Halloween, maybe having a calendar with Halloween clearly marked will help with regulating their anticipation.
The holiday can add a lot of stress, so maybe you can also consider being more relaxed on some of your typical expectations. In other words, don’t add fuel to the fire. Your child might be very dis-regulated after having a busy day at school, so maybe you don’t need to insist that they hang up their backpack, feed the dog, or share about their day.
I don’t know about you, but just the thought of putting my hand into a slimy, room temperature pumpkin makes me want to gag. I also can’t stand the smell of raw pumpkin. That said, I love pumpkin pie and everything pumpkin spice. For me, pumpkin is a love-hate relationship.
Halloween can be sensory overload. To help your child cope with the sensory aspects -in any situation - the best thing you can do is to address it before it becomes a problem. I like to think of it like getting prepared for a change of weather. If I’m prepared ahead of time, I will be much more comfortable and it won’t cause a problem. So, if it’s raining outside, I can plan ahead, wear a raincoat and bring an umbrella to stay dry. If I don’t address the possible need ahead of time, I might be cold and wet.
Most O.T.’s will tell you that holidays call for sensory activities and tools to help calm the body. The activity and supports you put in place will depend on your child’s individual needs. Some usual “go-to’s” would be deep pressure activities.
Some examples of deep pressure and calming activities -
**Disclaimer, the recommendations made are from researched-based methods and are meant to be general strategies. Please consult your therapists or doctors for specific recommendations.