Clinically reviewed by Claire Ellis, M.S., BCBA, LBA, National Director of Training & Development.
Navigating the holiday season can often feel more stressful than peaceful. Families are busy shopping, going to holiday events, and visiting friends and family members between normal daily obligations like work and school. Throw in other holiday traditions like visiting Santa, holiday train rides, and seeing Christmas lights, and the season is packed with potential triggers for children with autism. Not to mention, the hustle and bustle of the season can throw off a child’s everyday schedule, which is important for children with autism to maintain.
As a parent of a child with autism, you can make special memories while still keeping your child comfortable with these tangible tips and methods.
- Maintain your child’s schedule as much as possible. If nothing else, aim to keep bedtimes and mealtimes consistent so that when a holiday break is over, getting back into the normal routine is not as daunting. If you need to adjust your child’s schedule to accommodate holiday events, let your child know ahead of time, and explain how their routines will be impacted. Consider creating a visual schedule that you and your child can review and look at together throughout the day.
- Familiarize your child with relatives before a visit. Many people see family and friends only once a year, which can feel very uncomfortable to a child. If possible, re-introduce your child to the individuals they will see at an upcoming event either through a photo album you talk through together, or a video call. Give your child time and space to process meeting and seeing new individuals during events, and set expectations ahead of time with relatives on your child’s progress. Let them know your child’s comfort level with hugs, high-fives, or other greetings before you arrive at a gathering.
- Seek out sensory-friendly holiday experiences. Shopping in a crowded mall, among bright lights and holiday music, could be a strong trigger for a child with autism. Look for Sensitive Santa or sensory-friendly events in your city so that your child can experience the holiday magic without the sensory overload.
- Call the party host ahead of time. Some children with autism are likely to wander and can be sensory seekers or sensory defensive, which all require parents to understand their child’s environment to keep them safe. Ask the host ahead of time if their yard is fenced in, or where there is a safe space for your child to play or rest. Knowing any potential safety hazards ahead of time can help put your mind at ease and allow you to plan ahead accordingly.
- Ensure your child’s favorite foods are within reach. Many children have food aversions, sensitivities, or a very limited palate. Ensure that your party host has options that your child would like, or bring your own food if the holiday gathering falls during a mealtime and find a quiet space for your child to eat. Better yet, plan for your family to eat before you go to avoid a challenge altogether.
- Set aside quiet time to connect. No matter how many obligations there are on your calendar, set aside time on a daily basis to connect with your child and ask about how they are feeling. Read books, watch movies and take part in your child’s favorite calming activities. Take their cues and be prepared to decline events if it all becomes too overwhelming for your child. Sometimes saying no is exactly what your child needs to feel comfortable and supported.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
How can I help my autistic child for Christmas?
You can slowly introduce Christmas activities into your child's schedule for the holidays. Instead of doing multiple Christmas events on the same day, slow things down and spread them out if your child is having a hard time. You can decorate the house in sections, or over several days if necessary.
How can I take my child traveling for Christmas?
Traveling with an autistic child over the holidays can be challenging without the right preparation. The key is to contact attractions, hotels, and other venues in advance to ensure that the necessary accommodations are in place.
If you’d like more information about how ABA therapy could help your child and your family navigate life’s events, call Acorn Health at 844-244-1818 to schedule a free consultation.