6 tips to help autistic children manage sensory overload during the school holidays
The holidays are such an exciting time full of making memories and family traditions. Those carefree days mixed with fun activities, catch ups with friends and family, spontaneous outings, celebrations and minimal routine. Bliss, right?
All of the above however is a perfect formula for stress and disaster for some families. For parents and caregivers raising a child with autism, the holiday season can be an overwhelming and tough experience. One that many would rather wish to hibernate in rather than go and enjoy all the festive joy.
It can be quite the challenging task for autistic children to be able to emotionally regulate anyway, let alone factoring in any extra sensory triggers. The holidays present a lot of extra stimuli that can pose stress on families and siblings often feel these effects too. Family outings may need to be cut short; they may miss out on things and can feel overwhelmed by their autistic siblings.
With some extra planning and awareness around your child’s needs the holidays can still be something which can be enjoyed rather than feared.
6 easy tips for the holidays
- If the family is going somewhere new try to source photos and make a social story. Social stories are a great way to assist children on the spectrum with a visual guide to understand and cope with new situations. Short sentences alongside pictures that create a scene in which they can learn about.
Perhaps you are planning a little weekend getaway with friends? You could make a social story about that to assist in preparing your child on what to expect. Example sentences might look like this:
-On Thursday we are going to pack the car to leave for our holiday
-We will wake up early to go on our holiday. You might be a little bit tired but that’s ok you can rest in the car.
-The drive will be long, but we will stop for some lunch. We will arrive in the afternoon.
-This is where we are staying. It has a pool, a park and a games room.
-We will pack your headphones, weighted blanket and favourite fidget toys.
-We are meeting our friends there.
-We can have lunch and dinner with our friends and will spend time with them.
-When we feel like some quiet time, we can go back to our holiday room.
-We will come home on Sunday.
-Holidays are fun.
- Noise, bright lights and crowds often intensifies sensory overload, so it's important to find quiet spaces to regulate – a safe zone. For example, if you are going to a friend’s house for a BBQ it might be a good idea to organise a quiet space with the host beforehand. On arrival show your child where they might like to sit and have some quiet time when they begin to feel anxious or perhaps just show them the space and sit some of their items there. I know sometimes my daughter can feel more anxious if I pre-empt that she will need quiet time, I therefore would just sit her I-pad and noise cancellation headphones in a quiet space and signal to her that they are there.
- Often the holiday season means a relax in routine, but this can feel like chaos for a neurodiverse mind. To assist in maintaining some consistency I think it's important to maintain a holiday routine of some sort. It might be that you start your morning the same each day.
-Deep pressure massage with oils
-Have a push on the swing and talk about the plan for the day
If possible, it could be a good idea to also make a weekly board with visuals of any events or outings to assist in preparation for the week.
Monday – home day
Tuesday – park
Wednesday – movies
Thursday – cousins over
Friday – home day
Saturday – Beach
Sunday – family picnic
It's important to keep in mind that home days will be needed and when possible keep one outing per day.
- It is quite a huge expectation to be able to expect an autistic child to be on the go all day. Holidays are tricky as there is often a lot happening and social calendars can get busy, it's important to just say no sometimes. I have gotten quite good at limiting our social outings and it actually benefits my daughter’s siblings just as much. If there are days that we do have a few things on I always make sure I factor in periods to rest and re-regulate at home. A few hours to restore. Even if we are away on holidays. We might go to the pools in the morning and then have an afternoon BBQ. I will make sure that I allocate quiet time in our room for a few hours in between. More often than not the siblings enjoy a little time out as well.
- Be prepared and pack things that assist in helping your child to regulate. Have a little ‘autism toolkit’ of goodies to assist in trigger situations.
Here are some examples of things I would pack.
-Headphones for fireworks
-Chewy food for waiting in lines
-Fidget tools when meeting new people
-A familiar favourite toy for a car trip somewhere new
-Weighted blanket for the movies
-Chewy jewellery for playdates
-Bubbles to aid in transitions
-Chewing gum before moments of anxiety take over
- Plan for a back up plan. Sometimes things just aren’t going to go according to plan and there is no point pushing your child when they aren’t coping. Sometimes it's useful to have a plan B. Perhaps you're going to the movies as a family, plan with your partner for one of you to take your autistic child home if they are showing signs of not wanting to be there. It's better to leave on a positive note so overwhelming memories aren’t made. Or if you are going somewhere with bright lights, noisy rides and a lot of people, one of you could stay with the siblings while the other one focuses on your autistic child. Watch their cues and be alert for triggers so you can prevent stressful situations for them.
I think it's also important to be realistic and lower your expectations. Know that there will be times where it's going to be a bit harder but that doesn’t mean you can’t still create amazing memories together in the holidays. Set genuine expectations together, be thoughtful with planning, look after yourself and maintain some sort of consistency and routine where possible.