Holidays can be overwhelming for children with autism

Holidays can be overwhelming for children with autism

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Kate Skinner glows with pride when talking about her 10-year-old son, Mathieu, an aspiring filmmaker and inventor who can't wait for Christmas.

Skinner recounts her son busting out with phrases like "'Mom, I love you so much, I'm so glad it's Christmas,'" she said. Or, "I'm going to make you something for Christmas, I don't know what it is yet.'"

Mathieu has autism and can become overwhelmed during the holidays.

"Everything is different, the schedule changes, the expectations change," Skinner said. "There are new bright shiny things in the house that weren't there before."

The things so many people enjoy about the holidays - vacations, holiday treats, seeing friends and family - can be stressful for kids on the autism spectrum because their normal routine is disrupted, according to Michael Marcin, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in autism spectrum disorders.

Kids with autism, he said, "actually have a predisposition to routine and focus and if you remove that from them, you're actually taking away something they enjoy doing."

Scheduling holiday time
Marcin recommends parents give their children a daily routine during the holidays.  It can be as simple as waking up at the same time each morning and sitting down to discuss plans for the day, he said.

Children are used to seeing their friends at school, so Marcin recommends setting up a playdate during the school break.

Marcin says an advent calendar, which children use to countdown the days until Christmas, will give them a sense of control and predictability over the holiday.

It's also important to figure out what works for your child.

Preserve the child's traditions
To prepare Mathieu, Skinner talks with him about what they will be doing in advance, so he knows what to except.  She also makes sure to designate a quiet space for Mathieu to have alone time if he needs it.

Since Mathieu, like many children with autism, only eats certain foods, "Our table includes rice and corn in addition to all the traditional Christmas foods because that's two things we know he'll always eat," said Skinner.

When the family plans to spend the holidays with relatives, Skinner sends a letter explaining her son's autism and needs.

"Asking for respect for your child and being the advocate for your child with your own family," she said.  "Every family I know has someone in their family that doesn't believe their autism is real."