Making the Most of the Holidays for Your Family and Your Son/Daughter on the Autism Spectrum


holidays-autism-spectrumWhile many happily anticipate the coming holiday season, families of sons/daughters on the autism spectrum also understand the special challenges that may occur when schedules are disrupted and routines broken. Our hope is that by following these few helpful tips, families may lessen the stress of the holiday season and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. The following tips were developed with input from the Autism Society of America, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Easter Seals Crossroads, Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at Logan, and the Indiana Autism Leadership Network.

TIP 1: Preparation is crucial for many individuals.

At the same time, it is important to determine how much preparation a specific person may need. For example, if your son or daughter has a tendency to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her. Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the date of various holiday events, or by creating a Social Story that highlights what will happen at a given event.

TIP 2: Having decorations around the house may be disruptive for some.

It may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house. If such a book does not exist, use this holiday season to create a picture book. For some it may also be helpful to take them shopping with you for holiday decorations so that they are engaged in the process. Or involve them in the process of decorating the house. And once holiday decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can be touched and those that cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.

Making the Most of the Holidays

TIP 3: If your child has difficulty with change, you may want to gradually decorate the house.

abacusFor example, on the first day put up the Christmas tree, then on the next day decorate the tree and so on. And again, engage them as much as possible in this process. It may be helpful to develop a visual schedule or calendar that shows what will be done on each day. At the same time, it may also be helpful to inform them of the process for removing decorations. This process may be disruptive for some individuals as well.

TIP 4: If your child begins to obsess about a particular gift or toy they want, it may be helpful to be specific and direct about the number of times a child can mention the toy.

One suggestion is to give your child five chips. They are allowed to exchange one chip for five minutes of talking about the desired gift. Also, if you have no intention of purchasing a specific toy, it serves no purpose to tell the child that maybe they will get the gift. This will only lead to problems in the future. Always choose to be clear about your intentions.

TIP 5: Teach your child how to leave a situation and/or how to access support when an event becomes overwhelming.

For example, if you are having visitors, have a space set aside for the child as his/her safe/calm space. The individual should be taught ahead of time that they should go to their space when feeling overwhelmed. This self-management tool will serve the individual into adulthood. For children who are not at that level of self-management, develop a signal or cue for them to show when they are getting anxious and prompt them to use the space. For children with more significant challenges, practice using this space in a calm manner at various times prior to your guest’s arrival. Take the child into the room and engage them in calming activities (e.g., play soft music, rub his/her back, turn down the lights, etc.). Then when you notice the child becoming anxious, calmly remove him/her from the anxiety-provoking setting immediately and take him/her into the calming environment.

travel-tipsTIP 6: If you are traveling for the holidays, make sure you have the child’s favorite foods, books or toys available.

Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Also prepare them via social stories or other communication systems, for any unexpected delays in travel. If your son/daughter is flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring your child to the airport in advance and to help them become accustomed to airports and planes. Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying.

TIP 7: Know your child and how much noise and activity they can tolerate.

If you detect that a situation may be becoming overwhelming, help your child find a quiet area in which to regroup. And there may be some situations that you simply avoid (e.g., crowded shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving).

TIP 8: Prepare a photo album in advance of the relatives and other guests who will be visiting during the holidays.

Allow the child access to these photos at all times and also go through the photo album with your child while talking briefly about each family member.

TIP 9: In preparation for the holiday season, you might want to practice opening gifts, taking turns and waiting for others, or giving gifts to others.

Role play scenarios with your child in preparation for them getting a gift they do not want. Talk through this process to avoid embarrassing moments with family members. You might also choose to practice certain religious rituals. Work with a speech language pathologists to construct pages of vocabulary or topic boards that relate to the holidays and family traditions.

TIP 10: It may also be helpful to prepare family members for strategies to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents, and to enhance participation.

Help them to understand if your son/daughter prefers to be hugged or not, needs calm discussions, or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother holiday season. If your child becomes upset, it might also be helpful to coach others to remain calm and neutral in an effort to minimize behavioral outbursts.

TIP 11: If your child is on special diet, make sure there is food available that they can eat.

And even if they are not on a special diet, be cautious of the amount of sugar consumed. And while we are talking about health, try to maintain a sleep and meal routine.

TIP 12: Above all, know your child. Know how much noise and other sensory input they can take.

Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. Know their fears, and know those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them.

Don’t stress. Plan in advance. And most of all have a wonderful holiday season!

Contributed by Cathy Pratt, Ph.D., BCBA
Director, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
Downloads Available:
Sample letters: You Visiting Family
Sample letters: Family Visiting You

Resources and Links:

Thriving During the Holidays
Love, Laugh & Live: The emotional side of the holidays
Toy Story: AbilityPath’s recommendations for toys this holiday season
Tips when Shopping for Toys
Holiday Recipes from AbilityPath Parents
Sample letters and social stories: You Visiting Family
Sample letters and social stories: Family Visiting You
Learn more about autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Indiana Resource Center for Autism and Indiana University Center on Excellence and Developmental Disabilities