The holidays can be a difficult time for everyone. For some, it evokes feelings of angst, of fear, of loneliness and even debilitating excitement. Along with the transition of season and weather as well as all of the holidays across the winter months, it can be incredibly difficult to process and regulate our emotions whilst being overexposed and overwhelmed by the fast pace of the holiday season.

If you’re a neurodivergent person or are currently parenting a child with special needs, special attention has to be paid to the manner in which we start to initiate conversation and feedback to our children about the changes going on around them. It seems like as soon as we reach the 1st of October, there are weather, clothing changes, parties, flavor changes (although I love my pumpkin spice), days off from school, etc. It can be extremely confusing for someone who struggles with change to regulate oneself even in the midst of the joy that the holidays can bring. 

As a behaviorist and fellow neurodivergent practitioner, I have a few tips to help families, loved ones, and children process the changes that are going on around them as well as to help families prepare in advance for those sometimes-tough moments.

As a parent, you may want to start a desensitization process with your child which includes increasing exposure to new things in small doses that you know might be overwhelming as the changes become more dramatic. For instance, starting to provide choices about what clothing, outerwear or shoes to wear. Creating an environment that based on your own child’s preferences, you can present with some of the changes that might feel uncomfortable or overstimulating. Visits to more family members, particularly those they may not see often (includes video calls and phone calls). Cooking new foods that are similar to what might be served over the course of the holiday and systematically increasing your child’s exposure to these foods (only to the extent that they are comfortable and will allow it).

If your child does receive ABA services, this is certainly an area I’d suggest prioritizing with your therapist so that change becomes a natural part of the cycle of the day and so that the entire family can feel more at ease as the upcoming changes occur, and as there might be a noticeable uptick of problem behaviors.

People with autism are not different for struggling with the challenges that come with holidays, weather changes, and routine disruptions; However, it is important that we as practitioners and parents understand how salient even small differences might be felt and experienced by our loved ones, and therefore the strongest and most effective strategy is to proactively have the tough conversations, have your loved ones help participate in the upcoming transitions, use effective communication to help your children or loved ones see the positive aspects of the change, and more than anything-don’t be too hard on yourself. Change is tough.