Autism Doesn’t Take a Holiday: Tips for Helping Kids Cope this Season

Both of Jennifer Hayden’s sons were diagnosed with autism when they were still toddlers.

She was reluctant to believe the diagnosis with her firstborn, Jack, now ten. Knowing the signs with Alec, now eight, helped her better navigate the diagnosis process.

“My experiences with Jack’s diagnosis were really difficult, but it helped me be a better mom and I was able to advocate for Alec when he needed it,” she explained.

Jack is nonverbal and uses an iPad to communicate. Hayden said he’s become so good with the device that he’s “figured out how to argue and nag me using his iPad.”

“He is a really active kid, but he has a smile that lights up a room,” she said.

Alec is verbal and able to keep up with his second-grade schoolwork, although his speech was somewhat delayed.

“Sometimes it can be hard to understand him and sometimes he has a hard time communicating what he is thinking,” Hayden said. “He has a tough time interacting with other kids, but this year has made a few friends in his class, which is so exciting to see.”

Like any other kids their ages, Jack and Alec are excited about the upcoming holidays, but Hayden said the season definitely presents unique challenges for her guys.

“Holidays can be difficult for many reasons,” she said. “One thing that is tough is going to houses they aren’t used to. My oldest wants to explore the whole house and my youngest tends to become withdrawn and nervous. Another thing that my oldest has always had a difficult time with is the expectation to open a lot of presents. To him, he wants to play with the first thing he gets and isn’t interested in continuing to open presents.”

Dr. Angela Tzelepis, director of psychological and clinical training at The Children’s Center of Wayne County, was a recent guest on the Healthier Michigan radio show presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. She said children with autism typically thrive on predictability and routine.

“What we find during the holidays is that our routines get upset,” she said.

Tzelepis offered these tips on making the holidays easier for children with autism:

  • Be choosy about the events you attend. Tzelepis explained that you might have to decline some invitations in an effort to maintain some sort of normal routine and schedule.
  • Focus on sleep and nutrition. Trying to keep a normal sleep schedule during the holiday season is important for everyone in the family, but Tzelepis said that’s especially so for children with autism. Maintaining a good, healthy diet, despite all the season’s temptations, is another important goal to strive for.
  • Talk about what’s coming up. Tzelepis said parents can prepare children for changes to their routine by explaining in advance where they’re going and what they’ll be doing. This way, kids and parents can work together to think about coping strategies before entering new situations.

Hayden said her children handle changes in routine fairly well, but she tries to follow their lead and respect what they need in different situations. When they’re visiting relatives, she plans ahead, bringing comforting items along for both boys. She also allows them to take breaks as needed.

“I respect and understand that holidays are difficult for them and try not to push them too hard,” she said. “In many things, I’ve found it helps if I can change my expectations. If I expect to have experiences like families with typical children have, I will end up frustrated and disappointed. When I can focus on what they can do, but also what their limits are, then I can truly enjoy my boys for who they are.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr. Tzelepis below. For additional resources and educational materials about autism, she recommends visiting the websites for Autism Speaks or the Autism Alliance of Michigan

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Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hayden

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