Holidays and Autism: What Parents Should Know

holiday tips autism

Tips To Help Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder Have Happy Holidays

Holidays and autism may feel like a hopeless combination for some parents. Between the shopping, cooking, decorating, and wrapping, the holiday season is stressful for everyone. But the holidays can be particularly stressful for the parent of a child on the autism spectrum. Generally speaking, the holidays are a perfect storm of triggers for those with ASD. Disrupted schedules once school is out, changes around the house, social gatherings, travel, and the increased noise and activity levels can all easily overwhelm the child with autism. As the parent, successfully navigating this minefield can also feel overwhelming—and while it is difficult and does take a lot of planning, it’s not impossible.

This season, prep your child for the upcoming madness in advance in order to have a smoother, happier holiday. With some advance warning, most children with autism can get involved with your family traditions, relax, and even enjoy themselves. Here are eight of our favorite tips for turning holiday obstacles into developmental opportunities for your child:

Write Social Stories

As the parent of a child with autism, you understand that children on the spectrum often don’t cope well with spontaneity, disruption, or change. One way to combat the flurry of new activity during the holiday season is to create social stories with your child. Well in advance of the holiday or event on your calendar, sit down with your child and write a story together detailing what’s about to happen. Be sure to incorporate all of the elements of the upcoming visit or event to help your child better prepare. If your child is more visual than verbal, you can also draw pictures together and talk about what each picture represents. The more time you are able to spend talking to your child about each event, the calmer and happier your child will be. This is a similar technique that is used when your child is going to the dentist or a new doctor. You would describe what the waiting room looked like, how you would sign in at the window and sit down. The more detail you provide the more likely you are to see decreased anxiety and improved behaviors.

Create Holiday Picture Books

Many Occupational Therapists and other autism professionals recommend that parents of children with autism create holiday picture books to reinforce family holiday traditions. As you go through your holiday traditions, take pictures of Thanksgiving dinner, decorating the tree, baking cookies, visiting relatives, opening gifts, New Year’s Eve, etc. Glue each picture to a piece of construction paper or heavy cardstock and write a simple sentence under each picture, such as “Mom hangs the Christmas wreath” or “Dad carves the turkey.” Staple or bind all of the pages together at the end of the holiday season, write the year on the cover page, and give the picture book to your child. Not only will the picture book help your child talk about what your family did for the holidays, it will also serve as a helpful reference point when the holidays roll around again next year. You may also want to consider putting pictures of relatives on any gifts your child receives.

Go Slow and Steady

Children on the autism spectrum typically dislike change and disruption, so go slow. Remember to pace yourself. Rather than putting up the tree, decorating the tree, decorating the house, and putting lights up all in one day, break these activities into smaller segments. For instance, put the tree up on the first day and let your child get used to that change for a day or two, and then decorate the tree a couple of days later. A slower schedule helps children with autism and related disorders feel calm and in control.

Engage Your Child

Even though your child with autism spectrum disorder may struggle with many aspects of the holiday schedule—such as the break from routine, the social events, and the increased noise and activity—there are parts of the holidays that are tailor-made for children with autism. For example, many children with autism greatly enjoy advent wreaths or calendars that countdown to Christmas and contain a treat each day. You should also consider encouraging your child to help you with some of the more repetitive tasks that exercise fine motor skills, like stringing popcorn or putting cards in envelopes. Lastly, if possible take your child grocery shopping with you and talk about meal preparation and planning, or let your child look at pictures of the foods you are making and talk about why they’re special. Children who are invested in the holiday meal are less likely to act out or refuse to eat. The bottom line: the more engaged your child is in the holiday season, the smoother it will go for everyone.

Draw Visual Calendars

Visual calendars are a great tool to manage expectations for children with autism. Create a visual calendar or schedule with icons representing each of the activities you have planned for the holiday season. Examples of activities you might list on your calendar include Christmas Tree Day, holiday dinner, any family gatherings or travel, and, of course, opening presents. Go to the calendar with your child each morning and reinforce the activities that are on it: “Five days until we open presents! We open them on a Tuesday this year.” Doing this gives your child plenty of time to process what’s happening—and what’s coming up.

Practice Greeting People and Opening Gifts

The holidays are a great chance for the parents of children with autism to help their children build social skills that will serve them throughout life, not just during the holidays. Before the season begins, and throughout the holiday season, try role playing with your child to reinforce social cues. Examples of situations you might practice include greeting people at the door, talking about your holiday traditions, and sitting at the table and passing dishes during dinner. Many experts also suggest that you practice opening gifts with your child and expressing thanks. Wrap small toys and then allow your child to open the gift while providing some coaching about what to say to the giver. This extra practice will also develop your child’s fine motor skills. A quick side note about gifts: Many toys come in hard-to-open packaging. For the best result, take any toys you buy out of their packaging and place them in easy-open boxes with lids instead. Same goes for elaborate wrapping with lots of tape and bows. Skip this step for your child with autism—plain and simple is best. If your child is able to open all presents without too much trouble (or help from adults) then you are less likely to have a meltdown Christmas morning.  

Set Up Calming Activities and Safe Places

Think about where you are going to be during the holiday season other than your own home. At Grandma and Grandpa’s house? A good friend or a favorite aunt’s house? Parties have lots of noise, smells, and movement which all can be exciting but very stressful for a child with autism. When your are going to a someone’s home, talk to your hosts before and make sure that you establish a calming space that your child can easily get to when feeling overstimulated. For example, you could set up a private play area in a back bedroom with some favorite toys, games, books, or drawing materials. Ask your host what would be best and arrive early for the get-together to go over the game plan with your child. Of course, you should also set up a space for your child if you are having visitors at your house. If your child is able to self-monitor, encourage him or her to go to the space alone when the activity level becomes overwhelming. This is a great self-management tool that will help your child into adulthood. If your child is not developmentally able to self-monitor yet, come up with a secret signal or cue that you can give your child when you sense any signs of distress. Often, simply knowing that a special area has been set aside will help children with autism better cope with the stress of a holiday party. If at all possible, take your child with you to these events, especially to family gatherings. Your child needs family and other important relationships. And so do you. Don’t try to hide or shield your family members from the realities of autism—just prepare for them.

Bring Favorite Foods and Toys

A final tip for holiday parties and other holiday travel is to make sure to bring along your child’s favorite foods and toys. Familiarity is crucial for children with autism, and something from home, whether it’s a favorite blanket or a much-loved stuffed animal, can help your child cope with new experiences and activities. Even older children can benefit from being allowed to bring a favorite item or two. Similarly, while it’s important for children with autism to be encouraged to try new foods, and to practice eating what’s served, a big family gathering may not be the best place to enforce this ideal. Instead, bring a few of your child’s favorite foods. If it’s a potluck or hors d’oeuvres hour, simply make a plate for your child and refill out of your private stash. If it’s a sit-down meal, inform your host beforehand that you will be bringing food for your child. Of course, if your child expresses interest in the meal being served, you can always let him or her try it. The important thing is to not force anything during a situation that is already stressful for your child.

Overall, the main advice we have for enjoying a safe and relaxing holiday with your child on the autism spectrum is to prepare, take it slow, and get to know your child’s cues. While the holidays can be stressful for both the parent and the child, they can also be a unique opportunity to practice skills that are useful throughout the year and to bond with your child.

Of course, if your child is exhibiting self-destructive or aggressive behaviors, we are here to help. You can always reach out to Springbrook for a completely confidential consultation call 864.834.8013.