10 Keys to a Peaceful Holiday Season for Autism Families

Mother and daughter opening presents by treeThe holiday season can be chaotic for any family, but for families living with and caring for children on the autism spectrum, it’s a new level of super-charged chaos. Here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years, both from my own experience and from other parents.

1. Communicate Expectations

Use picture schedules or social stories to help your child know what to expect, and respect your child’s desire to opt out of the things that seem too overwhelming. Also, remind your child what kind of behavior is appropriate where you’re going. Telling your child to “be good” is vague and likely won’t mean anything. An instruction to say “thank you” when receiving a gift is concrete and therefore much more likely to sink in.

2. Limit Lights

Your child has sensory issues. Keep this in mind when decorating and going out. Visual overstimulation can lead to anxiety and even, in some children, seizure activity. Blinking lights are rarely a good idea. Even candles can be a source of frustration. Don’t be surprised when a child who has been taught to blow out candles on a birthday cake blows out the menorah, as well.

3. Think Outside the (Gift) Box

Many kids have a hard time opening presents because they don’t like the sound of paper being torn. Others have made paper-tearing a hobby. Use gift bags or cloth material to enclose gifts for those who are sensitive.

4. Prepare for ‘People Panic’

Having people over for a holiday gathering? Let your child in on as much information as possible, such as who will be coming and how long they’ll likely stay. Also, give your child permission to retreat to his or her room or another designated area in order to decompress, if necessary, and keep that area off-limits to everyone else.

5. Be Wary of Transition Troubles

Doing some traveling? Be realistic about how much transitioning your child can do effectively during the course of a day. Going to new places and meeting new people can be extremely taxing on kids on the spectrum. Identify a place—even the bathroom works—where your child can go to decompress, if needed. Bring a pair of headphones or earmuffs for your child so they can block out the hustle and bustle.

6. Sniff Out Problematic Smells

Be aware of the over-abundance of scented products this time of year. If your child is sensitive to smells, a pine-scented candle or peppermint hand soap may just be enough to push them over the edge of meltdown mountain.

7. Give Up Some Control

Give your child as many choices as you can. A sensitive child who has choices may feel more in control and may in turn be more willing to go with the flow.

8. Quit While You’re Ahead

Don’t wait until your child is sensory-overloaded to leave the party. Decide how long you think your child can last and then decrease it by an hour. Better to leave while your child is in a good place and call it a successful outing than push your luck.

9. Rethink Traditions

Create new traditions when the old ones don’t work out. Those glass ornaments handed down from your great-grandmother may not be the best idea if your child likes to rearrange tree ornaments daily. Rather than deal with frustration and possible hazard, why not use plastic and paper decorations?

10. Safety First

If your child is a “runner” or tends to wander off, designate someone to be in charge of watching them when you cannot. (We all have to use the bathroom sometime.) Use a piece of ribbon around a person’s wrist or a Santa hat for a visual “handoff” when it’s another person’s turn. Being specific and intentional about who is watching your child can help put your mind at ease.

The key is to be aware of and empathetic toward the sensitivities of your child and to create realistic expectations for not only your child, but for yourself, too. Keep in mind, also, that it’s just a holiday—it’s more important for your family to enjoy one another than it is for your child to comply with “holiday traditions.” Who knows? You may even get to drink a few sips of eggnog.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, Autism Spectrum Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeff

    December 15th, 2015 at 9:39 AM

    You know, my daughter has autism and honestly the best thing that we can do for he is to try not to change up her routine too much. We just try to keep things on an even keel, and generally if we don’t stress out too much she sort of takes her cues from us and she will do the same.

  • Mary

    December 15th, 2015 at 10:34 AM

    If you know a family with an autistic child it could be a wonderful and giving thing to do something nice for the family. It might be too much disruption for them to come to you so why not go them? Bake a cake, bring some treats, just stop by to say hi. This can feel like a lonely or isolating time fro these families who want to enjoy the holidays but who know that too much of a disruption can cause serious issues in the home. Just be mindful of those in need this holiday season.

  • laura t

    December 16th, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    These are so many things that I have never even thought about

  • janeen

    December 16th, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    Jeff, that is so true that our kids take their cues from us. They definitely feed off our energy as well, because they feel it so profoundly. Thanks so much for your comment.

  • janeen

    December 16th, 2015 at 10:42 AM

    Mary, that is an awesome idea! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  • Geofrey

    December 16th, 2015 at 11:25 AM

    My cousin has an autistic child and it really does limit the things that they are ever able to do, and definitely over the holidays. She is a child that they have worked with and cared for so much that I know they do the best that they can, but any little thing could send her into emotional trouble and it never effects only the child but the whole family.

    I truly admire the strength that both she and her husband have to have, for they have 3 other children as well who all need attention and care too. Somehow they manage it all, but I know that there are times of great stress in that family that I will never be able to completely grasp or even understand what it feels like.

  • Kennedy

    December 17th, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    awww what a sad thing to have to leave out the Christmas lights. That is one of my favorite things to drive around and look at at Christmas.

  • janeen

    December 17th, 2015 at 8:53 AM

    Kennedy, actually, driving around and looking at lights is a great activity that we do with our son who has autism, but it’s the overhwhelm and blinking lights that can sometimes be problematic. Every child is different, so it really all depends on what they can tolerate.

  • janeen

    December 17th, 2015 at 8:54 AM

    Geofrey, if only more families had such empathetic and caring extended members like yourself. Thanks for sharing.

  • Corden

    December 21st, 2015 at 1:03 PM

    I would like to make all of the decisions when it comes to my children but I know that they need that chance to learn and grow that happens when I don’t interfere. I am always going to be there for them for advice, but I don’t always want to have to be their fall back and safety net.

  • Josh

    December 23rd, 2015 at 5:28 AM

    Just because a child is autistic does not mean that they cannot have a say in what they do and are feeling. If they are able to communicate these things with you then it would be good to listen and take it into consideration.

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