Ask the Therapist: Holiday Edition

Our latest Ask the Therapist column features tips for making this holiday season successful for your family. If you’re worried about changing routines, new traditions, and other elements of the holidays, check out the December column:


Dear Dr. Barb:

As the holidays approach this year, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety. I’m on the spectrum and I have autistic children as well. My family has a good routine that we’ve followed for many years, and this year it’s going to look quite different. I’m worried my kids and I will not be able to handle all this change, and we won’t be able to find joy in the holidays. Any advice?

-Home for the Holidays


Dear Home for the Holidays:

This year has been one of ongoing stress, and it’s smart of you to plan ahead for different routines for this year’s holidays. Whether you’re worried about your stress or want to support a family member, there are a few strategies you can use to make the holidays run smoothly.

1) Prepare for what to expect. Whether that means setting up a plan in advance so you know where you’ll be and what activities you’ll be doing, or working with your loved one to describe what will happen, make sure everyone feels comfortable with what’s coming. You can even create a social narrative to help support.

2) Maintain diet. Some bodies and brains can continue to function at an optimal (if not slightly hyper or lethargic) level with changes in diet such as increased sugar, fat, red food dyes, wheat, or carbonation. Other bodies, however, get thrown off kilter when holiday foods are introduced, causing potential challenges. It is up to you on how to navigate the rich holiday food offerings. It’s absolutely ok if one member of your family is eating chicken nuggets while others are having ham. Having consistent food also can help create a sense of normalcy and routine during this different time.

3) Have a plan for meeting sensory needs. Being in your own home can be incredibly helpful for meeting sensory needs. Don’t feel that you have to change up their sensory routine if it’s working for them. Incorporate breaks throughout the day.

4) Decide what the holiday means (and doesn’t mean) to you. Try to find a new way to focus on that: calling family and friends if that is what is important, spiritual reading if that is what is important, trying a new recipe if food is what is important. It’s ok to let go of both past traditions and the sense of this is how we are supposed to feel and this is what we are supposed to do. It’s also ok to feel sad that things are different.

5) Keep to the same general schedule as a normal day. One benefit of not going to parties is that you can still get up, eat, and go to bed at around the same times as usual.

6) Use technology. Check in with your family, but don’t expect your video calls to last too long. Especially with younger kids, a five minute “hello” can be fine. If you’re not comfortable with it, you can even skip the video chat.

7) Brainstorm a new tradition in advance. A new tradition could be watching a holiday movie as a family or going sledding. This is a wonderful time to build something new for the future.

Good luck and happy holidays!

-Dr. Barb

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