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It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Except when it’s not.

I have always been obnoxiously holiday-obsessed. My family even has a make-believe holiday called Cookie Day and Santa even comes…

When I had kids I was SO excited for the holiday season.

We’d bake cookies and watch Christmas movies and drive around looking at Christmas lights and have big huge holiday dinners, right?

Well, then my second kiddo, A-Man, HATED the holidays.

He screamed his head off during holiday parties. He had meltdowns when we tried to see Santa. He wanted none of it.

See, A-Man is autistic, and sometimes that makes the holidays pretty difficult… One of the hardest parts is the lack of routine.

See, autistic people (especially autistic kids!) absolutely thrive on a steady routine. They know what to expect, so it really helps calm their anxiety.

But during the holidays, routines go out the window. School is out, bedtimes get pushed, and everything is just… different.

So today I’ve compiled 7 tips that will help you survive the lack of routine during the holidays with autistic kids so that you can all enjoy the holidays a little bit more!

Boy sits in a sleigh inside of a room that's decorated with Christmas decorations like a Christmas tree, reindeer, and stocking. The boy is upset, and has his hands in front of his face, crying. Text reads: 7 Strategies to Handle Holidays With the Lack of Routine

7 Tips to Survive the Lack of Routine During the Holidays

Before I dive in to the tips to survive the lack of routine during the holidays with autistic kids, I want you to know this: Your autistic child isn’t trying to ruin your holiday.

I know how hard it is when you have these grand ideas about how the holidays will go, and it can be really frustrating when you have to alter that plan to avoid a holiday meltdown or to have a more autism-friendly Christmas.

But with these tips, you will be setting your autistic child up for a successful holiday season where they feel safe, respected, and supported.

And that will help you do more of the things you truly care about during the holidays!

#1 Keep as Much as You Can the Same

This might seem silly, but any tiny thing that you can keep routine is going to help with the holidays.

Maybe you keep your morning routine the same, whether you’re heading out the door for school or to go to your mom’s house.

Maybe you bring your child’s favorite plate with you so that they eat off of something familiar every time.

The smallest thing can make a world of difference for your autistic child.

See, our routines keep us feeling safe. It’s more than just liking things to stay the same… They help us make sense of the world.

So even if your child’s routines seem silly or don’t make sense to you, trying to stick to them when possible is huge.

#2 Include a Sensory Diet Into Your Holiday Plans

If you haven’t heard of a sensory diet before, it’s basically making sure that your child’s sensory needs are being met regularly with a “diet” of sensory activities.

What types of activities are needed will depend on your child, but whenever possible build those activities into your holiday plans.

Planning a long car ride to grandmas? Plan to stop in the middle and get some wrestling time in.

Pack your child’s favorite sensory bin or their weighted blanket so that they have access throughout the holiday.

#3 Have an Exit Strategy Ready

I can’t recommend this enough… Have an exit strategy.

Because even with all the planning in the world, there may still be times when your autistic child may just not be able to handle the hustle and bustle.

Plan ahead and come up with a clear way to communicate with your spouse that your family needs to leave.

Talk about it ahead of time to avoid confusion.

Ever been somewhere and told your husband “we really should get ready to go” and they’re like “yeah totally!” and talk for another hour? Let’s avoid that!

(Full disclosure: I’m that spouse… Oops.)

Then you’re also going to want to come up with how you will explain to people that you are leaving.

A simple “{child} isn’t feeling well, we’re going to head home to help them.” may work, or you might want to offer something more specific.

Whatever you choose, make sure your spouse is on the same page.

And finally, if you’re a 2-car family, consider bringing both cars to holiday events so that one parent can head home early with a child who is struggling and the others can stay and finish out the holiday.

#5 Use a Visual Schedule to Plan for Routine Changes

When you need to change a routine, consider using a visual schedule.

Now if that just sent chills down your spine thinking you need to spend four hours on Pinterest finding the best visuals, this doesn’t have to be super complicated.

Use sticky notes to stick-figure draw the plan.

Use cell phone photos of things like Grandma’s house, Christmas decorations, or food on a holiday table and use them to show your child what to expect.

My friend Dayna even has a super fun rocket ship countdown visual in her book, Superkids Activity Guide that my kids have LOVED.

#6 Use Social Stories to Show Your Child What to Expect

If you don’t know what social stories are, they are essentially descriptive stories that guide you through a social situation giving examples of what to expect.

They can help autistic children picture what will happen and understand what other people are doing and expecting during an event.

I’ve written a social story about riding the school bus before.

You can have a ton of social stories for different holiday events so that your child understands what is going to happen.

This free social story from my friend Dyan is about seeing Santa.

The key with a social story is to be specific and factual.

It should not be used to paint autistic behaviors as bad and neurotypical behaviors as good.

#7 Remember to Be Flexible

And the final tip… Remember to be flexible.

Your holiday may not look like you imagined it would.

Your child may not want to (or be able to) sit at a table for a long meal, sit through long holiday services, stay calm during parties and family events, or patiently wait their turn to open gifts.

Be flexible with your expectations. Be flexible with your plans.

Remember that this isn’t about having your perfect holiday and making everyone fit that idea, it’s about having your family’s best holiday where everyone has fun and is supported.

So stay flexible, and have a super fun holiday that everyone can enjoy!

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