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10 Tips for Coping With Autism-Related Shopping Meltdowns During the Holidays

There’s nothing quite like the festive cheer that fills a shopping center during the holiday season. The smell of pumpkin spice, the sparkle of shiny tinsel, and Jingle Bells blasting over the speakers is one of those not to be missed experiences for some. But for those with autism, this is a sensory nightmare.

Shopping can be challenging for those with autism at the best of times. Now throw in all the sights, sounds and smells of holiday season and you can imagine how overwhelming a simple visit to the mall must be for someone with autism. Many special needs families avoid malls all together at this time of year in the hope that they’ll be able to prevent a sensory meltdown. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Can we really prevent sensory meltdowns during the holiday season?

It isn’t always possible to predict what will cause your child to have a meltdown. This is especially true during the holiday season. You may find that something that triggers your child one day won’t have any impact on your child on another day. You need to be vigilant and watch your child closely for any signs of a meltdown.

So instead of focusing on preventing meltdowns, your aim should be to find strategies to help your child cope with the overwhelm. It may also be a good idea to have a plan in place to help your child should they have a meltdown. It’s important to understand that a meltdown is your child’s way of coping with sensory overwhelm. The best you can do is to learn how to manage meltdowns effectively, and find ways to keep your child calm.

Helping your child cope with the holiday season

As challenging as facing the hustle and bustle of a mall during the festive season can be, there are things you can do to help your child cope.

1. Create a routine and stick to it

Structure, order and routine are very important for anyone with autism. This predictability helps an autistic child feel grounded. It’s also very calming for someone who struggles with sensory overwhelm to know what to expect each day. The key here is avoiding any surprise visits to the mall or unscheduled shopping trips. You want your child to feel prepared so that they know what to expect.

How you can put this into practice today: Create a calendar which your child can check daily. Be sure to mark the trips to the mall clearly. It may also be a good idea to remind your child about the upcoming shopping outing a few days before.

2. Do your research beforehand

It’s important to know what to expect from the visit to the particular mall you plan on shopping at. You’ll want to assess how overwhelming the visit is likely to be by considering things like whether there will be any loud music playing as well as other visual stimuli that may trigger your child such as a fountain. It’s also important to find out if there are any quiet places in the mall that you could take your child to calm down should they have a meltdown.

How you can put this into practice today: Go to the mall without your child and take pictures of things you think might be potential triggers. This will not only give you a good idea of what to expect but will also give you an opportunity to prepare your child.

3. Use social stories to prepare your child

Social stories can be especially useful for helping prepare a child for a potentially overwhelming experience as they help prepare your child for the experience. They also help your child understand what they’re going to do at the mall and how they should behave. You could use the social story to explain that you’re going to a few specific shops and then are going home. Here’s an example of such a social story.

How you can put this into practice today: It’s a good idea to start by writing down what you plan on doing at the mall. Be as specific as possible. You may also want to write down behavior your child struggles with in these situations such as wandering off without adult supervision. Now you can use this to either create a basic social story or you can find one online.

4. Be patient

For someone with autism, there’s nothing simple about visiting the mall. If your child has sensory sensitivity, it may seem like there’s a potential trigger everywhere you look. Keep this in mind, and understand that it takes courage to put yourself in a situation which is likely to be very overwhelming. Be supportive of your child, and perhaps most importantly be as patient as you can be.

How you can put this into practice today: One of the best ways to show your child you are patient and understanding is to check how they’re doing as often as you can. Ask your child whether they’re having a good time and would like to stay or would perhaps prefer to head home. This will help your child see that you are sensitive to their needs.

5. Start small

It’s a good idea to start by taking your child to a small shop near your house to run a quick errand. Explain to your child that you’re just going to pick up milk or eggs, and that the whole outing won’t take more than 20 minutes. With time, you’ll be able to run more errands and visit more than one store. This is the best way to familiarize your child with the shopping experience without taking them to a mall.

How you can put this into practice today: Take your autistic child with you the next time you need to run a quick shopping related errand. Be sure to explain using social stories what you’re going to do. You may even decide to add the errand to your child’s calendar so that they won’t be caught off guard.

6. Make sure your child is well-rested

It’s essential that your child has had a good night’s sleep and feels calm and well rested before attempting a visit to the mall. A well-rested child is more likely to be calm, and will have more tolerance to deal with any sensory overwhelm. In addition to making sure your child is well-rested, it’s important to avoiding visiting the mall too late in the day when your child is likely to be tired.

How you can put this into practice today: In addition to making sure your child gets to bed early, you can insist they take a short nap before you go to the mall.

7. Identify potential triggers

A visit to the mall can be full of triggers for a child with autism. And since it’s an environment you can’t control, you can’t always avoid these triggers. But if you know there’s going to be a live performance at the mall and that this will be particularly difficult for your child, you might want to reschedule. You can also avoid certain shops or parts of the mall that may be too overwhelming for your child. Some shops may play terribly loud music or may be too crowded for your child. It’s also a good idea to avoid the mall on days that are known to be busy such as the days leading up to Christmas.

How you can put this into practice today: You can start by researching the mall as well as the specific shops you want to visit. It may also be a good idea to call the mall a few days before you plan on going to see if there are any special events planned.

8. Pack your child’s favorite soothers

Be sure to pack any objects that will help your child cope with the overwhelm they’re likely to experience. Some children with autism find noise cancelling headphones especially helpful. Other objects to consider include sunglasses, a hat, or a favorite toy. These objects can help keep your child calm, and may even help them cope with their stress and anxiety.

How you can put this into practice today: Pack a bag for the mall and include as many comforting items as you can. It’s always a good idea to have backup in case you lose one of the soothers.

9. Pay attention to your child’s cues

If you watch your child closely you’re likely to see from their behavior when they’ve had enough and need a break from shopping. By identifying this early enough you can take your child to a quiet spot, and calm them down. This is one of the best ways to alleviate stress and may even help prevent meltdowns.

How you can put this into practice today: If your child is verbal you can teach them to tell you when they need a break. For nonverbal children, you can try teaching them a hand signal as a way of telling you they’re feeling overwhelmed and need a break.

10. Find an autism-friendly mall

Some malls are sensitive to the needs of those with autism and offer special events to make the shopping experience more bearable. This could include things like silent shopping hours during the festive season. Some malls also offer special silent Santa events so that children with autism can also enjoy a visit with Santa. Citadel Outlets in Los Angeles is hosting two Sensory Santa events as well as a Santa Cares day to give children with special needs the opportunity to meet Santa. You can find other Sensory Friendly Santa events here.

How you can put this into practice today: Research what social activities the malls in your area are hosting this festive season.

Despite its challenges, the festive season is an opportunity for fun and is the ideal time for some quality family bonding. There’s no reason your family should miss out on this unique experience. What tips do you have for managing meltdowns when shopping?

AngelSense is committed to creating a safer world for children with special needs. We designed the AngelSense GPS tracking solution to give parents the peace of mind that their child is safe at all times.

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