Autism and Holidays: It’s the Most Confusing Time of the Year

We spend most of the year teaching our kids with autism how “things are supposed to be”; how to behave, how to make friends, how to clean up, etc. Then, once a year, we turn it all on its head and expect our kids (who don’t deal well with change, and take everything we say literally) to buy into the “magic and wonder of the holidays”. Let’s take a moment to look at a few of our holiday traditions and what they might look like through they eyes (and brain) of a child with autism.

What’s this tree doing in the house?

I’ve spent years wondering why my son constantly moved things around my house. It was as if he needed things in their place, although we disagreed on his choice of placement. I’d put baby Jesus in the manger and find him weeks later in the spice rack. Then one year while bringing in the Christmas tree, he demanded, “Wanna put that outside!” Translation: “Mom, what the heck is that tree doing INSIDE the house?” It obviously freaked him out. In addition, we asked him to hang pretty red, glass balls on the tree. You can imagine my surprise when, after a year of teaching him to play catch, he decided to generalize that skill with my grandmother’s ornament collection. He was a little surprised when they didn’t bounce. Hence came our new tradition of plastic ornaments only.

1-2-3 blow!

My children are fortunate to grow up in a family with lots of traditions. Because my husband is Jewish, we have a menorah in addition to a Christmas tree. Perhaps the Maccabees had a lamp that burned for eight days, but my son won’t let a candle burn for longer than eight seconds. Birthday celebrations are important traditions for us too, so we’ve spent countless hours “playing” birthday party and teaching him how to tolerate the birthday song and blow out the candles. Consequently, we get about three words into the Hanukkah prayer and, “Baruch atah Adonai, whoosh!” Out they go, and then he applauds. We’ve embraced it as a new tradition.

There’s no time like the presents.

Our son tends to be very impulsive, and will throw or smash things when he gets frustrated, rather than asking for help. We’ve been through six television sets, a dozen DVD players, three sugar bowls, and countless home decor items in fourteen years. My husband and I have made it our life’s mission to stop this behavior, so we spend much of our time reminding him, “Look, don’t touch”, and “It’s a decoration, not a toy”. Then we give him a pile of beautifully wrapped presents, with sparkly paper and delicate red bows, and ask him to tear into them. It took several years of Christmases until he opened gifts willingly. And so began the brief tradition of gift bags.

Whether your family traditions start out of habit or necessity, take a moment this holiday season to view things through your child’s eyes. Let go of what’s “supposed to be” and embrace what IS. You may be surprised how your child responds when they are accepted for who they are. As I let go of my rigid expectations, my son let go of his. This year, I decided to take a chance and put a few glass ornaments on my tree. So far, so good. And although my manger scene is missing a magi, the gifts will be wrapped, our menorah is waiting to be lit, and I am hopeful.

Related Articles:
Thankfulness in the Midst of Autism
How to Relate, Relax and Relish the Holidays with Your Partner
Recognizing, Restructuring, and Relieving Holiday Stressors for Kids

© Copyright 2011 by By Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

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  • Pam


    December 14th, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    Having a child with sutism can be confusing on so many different levels! The child may be confused when there are any little changes, and then maybe you have family members who are not used to being arou nd a child who is autistic and they can sometimes make things worse too. You don’t want to keep the child away from the family but it sometimes feels like this would just be the easiest thing to do. You don’t always want to upset the applecart and that is not hard to do with an autistic child.

  • Lesa W

    Lesa W

    December 15th, 2011 at 6:20 AM

    Janeen, loved this post! You always have such great insights! I remember how I cried the first year my son independently opened his Christmas gifts. He’s a young man now and very high functioning, so sometimes I forget about that “LCT” (Literal Concrete Thinking). Last night, I was trying to give him a clue for his Ecology mid-term vocab(I know, even typing studying Ecology makes me fahklempt). The answer was “Advances in Sanitation”. We were in my bedroom and I said, “Open that (bathroom) door and look behind it. Tell me what you see”. I was hoping the toilet, sink and tub would trigger the answer. His reply, “I don’t know what a HOOK and a DOORKNOB have in common”! It took a split second for me to realize he literally looked behind the door and not at the bathroom! Sheesh. As soon as I said to look into the room, bingo, I got the answer. It’s so different!

  • Lesa W

    Lesa W

    December 15th, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    Pam, here’s a great website that is a PDF you can print out w/Holiday Tips for Families of Children with Autism. Good Luck to all during the season!

  • Laurie


    December 15th, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    This is so great! Real, and laced with the humor that makes you a THRIVER, not just a survivor. :) This is a definite “must share”!

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