It is already a different holiday season than we're used to, and as the end of the year approaches, many of our traditions will continue to be upended as New Jerseyans observe COVID-19 mandates and alterations to daily life.

For parents children with autism spectrum disorders and related conditions the challenge in the next few weeks will be to make the unfamiliar seem routine. People with autism often have difficulty dealing with change, and in some cases are deeply attached to their routines.

But once a "new normal" is established, Phoenix Center executive director Julie Mower said, it might become your family's permanent holiday procedure.

"There are ways that you can embrace this holiday, create new traditions, and keep your child or young adult safe and minimize the stress," Mower said. "Some of those new activities might become your new traditions. It might be a way for us to take a step back."

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Children – whether neurotypical or otherwise – often crave sameness and the predictability of a schedule, Mower said. That makes the holiday season inherently difficult. Something like putting lights on a Christmas tree, or plating a special meal rather than one usually reserved for a specific day of the week, can overload the senses.

With officials urging gatherings to be limited to immediate family members only, there could be an opportunity to tone down some of the usual upheaval.

"If your holiday dinner this year is macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers, that's OK, because you're enjoying time with each other, and that's really the most important thing," Mower said.

More than anyone else, it's kids who have become experts at Zoom and other forms of virtual interaction this year. Mower suggested they be the ones to take the lead on setting up greetings with isolated relatives.

And unlike a large house party, the virtual option has a built-in solution to tamp down boisterous merriment.

"You can actually just turn the volume down on your computer, which is a big plus for an individual with a disability who may be feeling the stress of sensory overload," Mower said.

Given the downtime many families will have from not shopping as much in person, or rushing around to see people, Mower suggests low-stress, kid-friendly activities like a holiday movie night or a drive-thru light show (if excessive light is not bothersome).

As far as a visit to Santa Claus, she said, make it virtual. Follow a Santa Tracker, or go the old-fashioned route — write a letter to the North Pole.

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