Autism-friendly holidays: How to make sure all is calm when all is bright

Expert perspective from one of our Autism Response Team members and mother of an autistic teenager

Autism Response Team member J-Jaye and her family

I love the holidays – the visits to relatives, the smells, the songs and the chaos of it all! However, my 17 year-old son, Jackson, who has profound autism, doesn’t share all my enthusiasm. Over the years, I have learned to adjust my expectations for what I felt we were supposed to do to celebrate the holidays and instead just do what works best for my son and our family. I hope some of our strategies will be helpful for you!

Prepare your child with pictures

Teaching Stories can be a huge help around the holidays – from filling up the days off from school, to a holiday party at a friend’s house or a visit to Santa at the mall. There are many premade stories available online that can help your child prepare for upcoming holiday celebrations. You can also make your own using your smartphone or our website.

Reduce the stress – for you and your child

Remember that your child with autism is often able to pick up on your “fa-la-la-stress.” It is important to take a few minutes for yourself here and there, so you can keep the chaos level to a holiday minimum. Deep breaths, hugs, a cup of coffee or just a few minutes alone in the restroom may be all you need to power on through!

Bring a bag of familiar items or games to new places

My son loves to watch “Sesame Street” on his iPad so I always make sure to bring it (with a full charge and back up battery) anywhere we go over the holidays – the mall, grandma’s house, and even worship service. Many kiddos may want to bring favorite toys, books, video games or comfort items to make them feel supported and comfortable in new environments during the holidays.I always include a few fidget toys and sensory calming items in our bag.

It’s ok to ask for help

Hurley kids with autism-friendly Santa

Hopefully, your extended family will want to make things easier on your travels and visits. Let them know HOW they can help and what can often be expected from your child. Jackson likes to verbally stim and flap, and that can often get strange looks.  It is always good to share things your child likes/dislikes/etc so that your family can help him/her feel more at ease in their home. Sometimes we wear our Autism Speaks bracelet or hat to help educate others around us in the mall or grocery store. We also take advantage of sensory friendly events around us, like Santa Cares which Autism Speaks does with Cherry Hill Programs around the country.  You can learn more about this autism-friendly Santa event near you here and find other local events here on our calendar.

Try to maintain a routine when possible

One the biggest challenges for many with autism is the change in schedule.  Out of school, missed bedtimes, and new places can all trigger a meltdown in Jackson. However, providing a daily visual schedule (which can be done as well on his iPad) helps keeps us on track. The holidays are all about change, but the more we can stay on our routine, the better for everyone. We also try to schedule extra time at his therapy clinic to help reduce the down time out of school.

Create a safety plan

One of the scariest aspects of Jackson’s autism is his elopement. He has wandered away from our house on several occasions. It is more important than ever during busy holiday times and crowded parties that someone has “assigned eyes” on your child. At home, we now have a complete alarm system, but we have a portable alarm we use in hotels or at other homes for his bedroom on the go. You can learn more about wandering prevention on our website.

Provide a favorite food just for him/her on the special day

In the past, we have had more meltdowns over food (or lack thereof) than I care to remember.  Traditional holiday foods of turkey and ham, cranberry sauce and pecan pie may sound delicious to me – but my son won’t eat any of that.  Instead of having his Grandma be insulted by not eating her special dinner, we always make sure to have 1 or 2 dishes that are “Jackson approved” so we know he can join us at the holiday table – even if it is guacamole and refried beans!

Make travel preparations early on

Perhaps you are flying for the first time or you are going on a longer car ride than normal.  Make sure to prepare early and put in place special plans for your child.  Autism Speaks has great travel resources on our website, and I always encourage families to call TSA Cares so accommodations can be made for their flight. This is even more important during holiday travel when airports are busier and louder than normal.  You can use the following social story, "Adventures with Autism: The Airport Experience!" prepared by Autism Speaks, JetBlue and Wyndham Worldwide, or you can create your own.

Provide a safe, calm space if your child gets overwhelmed

Jackson wears noise-reducing headphones when we are out and about, but even they can’t always stop the jingle jangle of holiday commotion. It is good to have a designated room in your relative’s house or place of worship that your child knows they can go to when they are getting overwhelmed.  Even dimming the lights and sounds in a small room can be helpful.  This is also a good time to bring out that bookbag of items you brought from home that could be distracting and/or soothing to them.

Take a big breath and enjoy new holiday traditions with your loved ones

Jackson Decoration

When Jackson was first diagnosed at age 2, it upset me for years that he didn’t like to unwrap presents with the rest of us on Christmas. Now I have learned to put all of his gifts in one big gift bag so he can pull them out when he wants to throughout the day – or the following week!  I also miss putting special ornaments on my tree (he takes them all down and often puts random items on it!), but we now add extra lights, garland and ribbon to make our tree just as beautiful.  Our new Christmas eve routine involves going to a drive through light show since he enjoys looking at lights.  This may not be the kind of holiday everyone has, but it is what works for Jackson and in turn, the entire family.  Holidays are a time to be together – to share laughter and celebrate family.  Remember that Holidays aren’t perfect for anyone (just ask ole Clark Griswold!) so enjoy this time together, with cheese single ornaments and all!

About the author

J-Jaye Hurley is a member of Autism Speaks Autism Response Team (ART), which can provide you with tools, resources and information to help you and your family navigate the world of autism. She is also a lover of explanation points! She has never met a sentence or situation where she cannot use them. And we are all the better for her enthusiasm. You will be too if you reach out to us and connect with her. Find out how:

How to contact ART

Call our toll-free number or send us an email – we’re available Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. in all time zones. Live chat is also available between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET.

Your call will be routed to the team member for your region. We also have a dedicated Spanish language toll-free number.

1-888-AUTISM2 (1-888-288-4762)

En Español: 1-888-772-9050

Tenemos una función de chat dedicada para los constituyentes de habla hispana disponible de 9 a.m. a 5 p.m. de lunes a viernes en todas las zonas horarias. Para chatear en español con un asociado de ART, haga clic aquí.

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.