Holiday Stress?

snow NYKaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA.    12.4.19

Yay!  It’s that time of year!  This is the time when people get ready to share joy with family and friends, to engage in generosity and gift-giving, and prepare and eat everyone’s favorite foods for celebration.

But…it’s also that time of year that sneaks up on people.  All of a sudden they have to get ready for all this celebration, family, friends, gifts and other merry-making.

It is actually extremely stressful for many people.

(For some people, this can be a downright depressing time of year, whether it’s because they can’t be with loved ones, they have financial stress, or they are generally socially isolated and feel more left out than usual).

When we think about the stress that is associated with holidays, a lot of this comes from the feeling that there is a lot to do in a relatively short amount of time.  For people with autism and other sensory or social challenges, this can be particularly anxiety-provoking.  For an individual with autism, there will be multiple changes in routine, unexpected events, excitement, and possibly extra people around.  Families and friends who love and support individuals on the autism spectrum, it is important to approach the holidays with this in mind.  Consider that your own stress and the frenzy of the season will be magnified for someone with autism.  Also consider that people with autism are more prone to social isolation, which could lead to a host of difficult responses during the holiday season.

How can we help ourselves and the people we care about get through this time of year and enjoy it to its fullest?  As always, I do happen to have some tips!

For yourself:

  1.  It’s easy to say be organized and effective with your time management, but it can be hard to do this in reality.  Try making a list of everything that needs to be done over the next few weeks, assign an approximate time frame to each task, and pick one or more tasks to do each day, depending on the time frame.
  2. Put your tasks on a calendar!  Add reminders if you think that will help you stay focused.
  3. Don’t try to do too much.  If you look at the list and realize that you don’t have the time budget or the money budget, you may need to let some of those things go this year.
  4. Enlist help.  Even if you are particular, and you like to do things your way, if you are strapped for time ask someone in the family to help with certain tasks. (If they don’t do it “right”, you can work on accepting change gracefully, or just fix it and it still saves you time).
  5. Give yourself a break.  When you make that calendar, include time for what you need to reduce stress.  Think of the things that help you relax and pepper those things into your schedule.
  6. ENJOY your time with family and friends!  With the work and effort you are putting in to making a nice time for yourself and everyone else, don’t forget to stop thinking, stop working, and enjoy the moments with the people you love.

For helping people with autism:

  1. Help yourself.  See list above.  If you maintain low levels of stress and frenzy, this will help your loved ones, all of them, and especially someone with autism.
  2. Try to maintain predictability.  Even with a lot of variation to schedules and routines, you can still provide predictability by giving visuals to prepare for differences.  For example, make a new visual every day to help prepare for what to expect that day.
  3. Provide support and reinforcement for someone who has a difficult time with changes by giving positive feedback and other small rewards for when they manage change well, or better than usual.
  4. Be aware of the person’s limits.  If you know that someone you love who has autism can’t handle large gatherings very well, give that person lots of opportunities for breaks, a quiet place to go when needed, sensory items to help cope, and encourage positive communication.  For example, if you are going to a family party, make sure you prepare by taking your child, teen or young adult with autism to a quiet place to show them where they can go for a break from the crowd.  Encourage him or her to use words and other communication to express needs (“I need a break”, “I need to go outside”, or “I really need to go home”).
  5. Watch for warning signs.  If you see indications that things are about to get tricky (change in voice volume, facial expressions, body language), try offering breaks or other support before the stress level gets too high for that person.
  6. Limit your expectations to what is realistic for the individual with autism.  Are you asking them to handle something that they really don’t have the skills yet to handle effectively?  If so, make a different plan.
  7. For kids, teens and adults with autism who may feel socially isolated, do what you can to not only include them in your own activities (this also means let them help you with all your own tasks), but also to help them reach out to friends or acquaintances.  Encourage small activities with friends, like going to see Christmas lights, getting a special snack or treat at a cafe, or attending a holiday-themed event at a local library.
  8. Focus on the positive!  Having a child or teen with autism may make your holiday experience different from what you had in mind, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Think about the things that bring you joy, the things you have to be thankful for, and embrace the fullness of what your family has to offer, even if it’s a little bit different.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next post!

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