Navigating the Holiday Season with FASD: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

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December is here and the holidays are just around the corner. For some this is an extremely enjoyable rest period involving lots of time with family and a short respite before the new year. For other individuals and families this time of year can be a stressful, anxiety-inducing experience.

Often individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and their families experience first-hand this stress and anxiety as they try to navigate the excitement, indulgence, and busy nature of this holiday season. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a lifelong disability that affects the brain and body of people who were exposed to alcohol in the womb. Each person with FASD has both strengths and challenges and will need special supports to help them succeed with many parts of their daily lives.

Providing supports to individuals with FASD around the holiday season can be challenging, as daily routines change, excitement and anticipation builds, and the environmental stimuli increase. We’ve developed some tips and tricks to help families navigate some specific aspects of the holiday season.

Gift Giving

Gift giving can be a really overwhelming experience for individuals with FASD. Due to the sensory processing challenges faced by many individuals with FASD, going to a large, noisy, crowded mall for your holiday shopping can be a really overwhelming experience. Other individuals with FASD have difficulty keeping the presents they’re giving a secret from anyone, including the intended recipients. Often times choosing a present can difficult because of the overwhelming number of possible choices. Not only are there a number of things that you could choose to buy, but there’s often choices to make between colours, sizes, and brands as well.

Some tips to improve your gift giving experience:

  • Do some online shopping to avoid the holiday crowds.
  • If you do choose to go out to shop, pick days, times and locations that won’t be as busy.
  • Make wrapping fun and easy:
    • Have your child use a gift bag instead of wrapping paper
    • Wrap the gift for your child or include them in the wrapping process by having them stick the bow on the present or choosing the wrapping paper
    • Have them design their own wrapping using a role of blank paper and some markers or paint
    • If it doesn’t matter to you what the gift looks like in the end, let your child wrap to their heart’s content and praise their finished product
  • Continuously remind your child that the gift they’re giving is a secret but recognize that your child may be too excited to keep that secret.
  • Keep gift options simple:
    • Give your child two options to choose between
    • Tell them what to get but have them choose the exact one at the store

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Gift Receiving

Gift receiving can also be a difficult situation to navigate. Individuals with FASD often experience challenges with social interaction, attention, memory, and emotional regulation. This may result in challenges surrounding ownership disputes over gifts, jealousy over what others receive, honest reactions to undesirable gifts, inattention or hyper-focused attention to one specific gift, and opening others’ presents.

Here are some tips to make receiving gifts a more enjoyable experience

  • If your child is focused on an unrealistic gift, address this impossibility early and give a clear reasoning why that gift isn’t possible
    • e. “That’s too expensive for Santa”
    • e. “That belongs to someone else, we can’t give you that.”
  • Designate specific areas for everyone’s gifts
    • Some families put square tape on the floor that everyone can place their gifts in once they’re opened
  • Have some rules in place for when and how many gifts are opened at each time
    • Some families have each person open one gift at a time to alleviate potentially jealousy due to perceived inequalities in gifts given
  • Stretch out the gift giving process over multiple days to give your child time to interact with each gift
  • Try to ensure everyone has some consistency in gifts (i.e. in type, number, and size)
  • Follow the rule of four gifts for each of your family members
    • Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read
  • Practice opening “undesirable” gifts prior to doing it in a public setting
    • Some families have given their children silly gifts of carrots and celery to practice their reactions for receiving presents they don’t like

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Holiday Parties

Holiday parties can be an extremely stressful experience for families of individuals with FASD. While advertised as a fun event involving lots of tasty treats and holiday cheer, in reality they can the exact opposite for some families. Holiday parties often involve a lot of social interaction and sensory stimuli that can be challenging to navigate for individuals with FASD and their families.

Here are some tips to help you navigate your holiday events:

  • Prepare your child with what they will expect at this event. Tell them the approximate number of people, the sensory stimuli, and the activities they may be exposed to
  • For children that are uncomfortable with physical contact think up some alternatives to hugs and kisses
    • e. high-fives, blowing kisses, fist bumps, waving goodbye, handshakes etc.
  • For children with sensory issues, talk to the host about potentially reducing or eliminating sensory stimuli
    • e. holiday music, flashing lights, scented candles, moving decorations etc.
  • Ask the host if there is a quiet space your child can retreat to when they begin to feel overwhelmed
  • Bring a “busy bag” to events, packed with essentials for your child including:
    • Sensory deprivation tools (headphones or earplugs);
    • Comfy clothes;
    • Colouring books;
    • Their favorite toys etc.
  • Test out ‘dress up’ clothes prior to the event to ensure that they are comfortable for your child to wear for long periods of time
  • Decline invitations to holiday events if you don’t feel attending is in the best interest to you or your family

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Keep in mind that individuals with FASD are unique. The challenges that your family face and the approaches that you employ won’t necessarily be the same as another’s. Remember that you know your family best. Trust in your ability to support them.

Our society places a lot of emphasis on the holidays being the “happiest time of the year”, but for a number of families this isn’t always the case. Please remember to take some time for yourself this holiday season. Check out our past blog post for some self-care tips to make sure you are healthy and happy. Remember, it’s okay to step back from certain traditions and obligations if you feel that you’re being stretched too thin. Take the time to enjoy the little things and don’t apologize for doing what you need to do to support your family!

Have a safe and happy holiday season from everyone at CanFASD!

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