For many, the holiday season is a time of joy, but for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it may also present distressing disruptions to their routines. You can ease holiday stress for your child with autism by planning and practicing for all aspects of the holidays well in advance of each event.
Picture stories, picture schedules or other visual supports are great ways to let your child know what will be expected of him during out-of-routine events from air travel to gift-giving to holiday parties, and can help your child understand what’s ahead.
These strategies can also help de-stress the holidays for kids with autism:
Don’t throw out your schedule
- Try to stick to familiar routines as much as possible.
- Do your best to keep mealtimes and bedtimes consistent.
- If your child is school age, consider incorporating familiar classroom activities, such as morning meeting or reading time, into your daily routine at home.
Be mindful about decorations
- Let your child know in advance how and when you plan to decorate.
- Invite your child to participate in the decorating process as much as possible.
- Go over expectations about not touching certain decorations.
- Limit the amount of decorations that have flashing lights and sounds to prevent overstimulation.
Let your child help you host
- Have your child help plan for guests you’ve invited to your home.
- Practice ways to be a good host, and prepare your child for how your family will welcome visitors.
- Have your child help prepare for your guests’ arrival by helping with tasks like setting the table or changing bed linens.
- Make guests aware of your child’s sensitivities and limitations so they know what to expect.
Practice giving gifts
- Set clear expectations around when presents are given and opened.
- If possible, include your child in choosing and wrapping presents to give to people who are important in his life, like a teacher or sibling.
- Remember that shopping is more crowded and stimulating than normal during the holidays. If you have to take your child with you, try shopping at less busy times, like weekday mornings.
- Role-play gift-giving etiquette, like taking turns and saying “thank you” and “you’re welcome.”
Don’t forget to continue to support and reward positive behavior and adaptability during these times. Always let you child know how well he’s doing. And remember, you don’t have to accept every invitation or attend every event. If some aspect of the celebration is too distressing for you or your child, opt out. You can make adjustments to traditions and incorporate new ways to celebrate that will make the whole family happy.
Hear from another autism family about their experiences preparing for the holidays.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.