Home for the holidays: Helping family members with autism have a happy holiday break

December 2, 2021
Home for the holidays: Helping family members with autism have a happy holiday break

No matter what holiday you celebrate, this time of year is a special time for many families. For some children with autism, holidays can be challenging. This year, the holidays will likely look a little different, which may bring some additional challenges. Martha C., a member of our Autism Response Team and mom of an autistic son, shares tips on helping your child adjust to a change in routine and celebrate the 2021 holiday season in a fun and safe way. 

Structuring time away from school

For some children with autism, holiday celebrations and time away from school can be overwhelming. Being away from school can be a nice break, but the change in routine can be disruptive. Understanding your child’s needs during this time can help make the season enjoyable for everyone.

Right now, some children may be learning virtually due to the pandemic. Their location may stay the same, but they will still need to be prepared for the change in the schedule they have been adjusting to at home.

Here’s what you can do to help make the most of your child’s holiday break:

Before the break
  • Communicate with your child about what it means to have time off from school. Discuss how the break is like being home on a weekend, just longer. 
  • Connect with your child’s support team. Consistency and structure can be helpful for your child during breaks from school and services. Ask about supports that can help maintain your child’s progress and provide a routine during the break from school. 
  • Prepare your child a few weeks in advance. If your child likes to have countdowns or reminders, mark the days on a calendar so your child has a visual representation of when the break will be. Cross off the days on the calendar as you get closer to the holiday break. 
  • If your child is e-learning, explain to them that there will be a break from classes and the virtual services they may receive to celebrate the holidays.
During the break
  • Home for the holidays: Helping family members with autism have a happy holiday break
    Keep as much structure in your child’s life as you can. 
  • Allow time for breaks. These are short breaks from activities to help your child self-regulate and deal with challenging emotions or behavior or with sensory discomfort. If your child will be spending time at activities away from home, schedule some quiet time during the day. 
  • Be flexible. Your child may decide at the last minute that they’d rather stay home instead of going out for an activity. If possible, choose another day or time.
  • Look for local activities or programs during the time off from school. Visit our Resource Guide and calendar of autism-friendly events to find activities in your local area. Be sure to check your local guidelines for restrictions you may need to follow when participating in activities or even leaving the home. There may be fewer activities and they may look a little different this year, but be creative and explain to your child why these changes are important to stay safe and healthy.
  • If your child is attending school virtually, you may want to keep up with some online learning activities so the transition back to school after the New Year will be easier. You can find some helpful COVID-related resources here.

Being with family and friends – even virtually

Even though this year may not come with big family get-togethers, there are still ways to make sure the holidays feel festive with friends and family, without causing too much disruption.  

Here’s what you can do to help make holiday festivities fun for everyone:
  • Have a favorite or preferred item for your child. This is something that helps calm your child and focus their attention. Examples include fidgets, headphones, books or a tablet. Decide on a code word or signal (like a break card) that your child can use to tell you when they need a break – even from a virtual holiday get-together.
  • If your child feels distressed about decorations such as blinking lights or decorations that make sounds, reconsider using them. This year especially, with all of the upheavals and changes our children are facing, the last thing you want is to create an environment with a possible sensory overload that can lead to a deregulation.
  • Make sure there’s a quiet space, like a bedroom, where your child can take a break. It’s OK if your child needs to spend some time alone amid so much excitement.
  • Make a photo album with pictures of the people your child will see, even via Zoom, to help your child prepare for conversations that may be outside of their normal routine. Tell your child you are still celebrating with Grandma this year, it just might look a little different!  

Giving gifts

Presents can be oh so exciting! But the commotion that comes with unwrapping them may not be fun for your child. Here’s what you can do to help your child know what to expect about opening presents:

  • Use visual supports. If visual schedules or teaching stories are helpful to your child, create one to have on hand to help prepare for gift-giving. 
  • If your child talks a lot about gifts, ask them to make a list of gifts they want, and create a plan to structure how often this topic comes up. For example, each day give your child five chips that they can exchange for five minutes of talking about gifts. 
  • Practice opening gifts ahead of time. Help your child understand that others will be opening gifts, too. 
  • Be flexible. Your child may not want to open gifts. All the excitement about gifts may be overwhelming. Your child may want to open gifts at another time or in a quieter room. Or they may not be interested in gifts at all.

Making new traditions

Here are some things you can do to start some autism-friendly holiday traditions for your whole family:  

  • Incorporate special interests. Add your child’s favorite characters to your holiday decorations. 
  • If your child may be bothered by decorations, put them up little by little over time. Start with one part of your home or one type of decoration and slowly add more. 
  • Check with local autism organizations or your child’s school to see if they are aware of any COVID-safe or virtual activities you can participate in. You may not be able to sit with Santa this year, but you can try new activities like vising light shows or other outdoor festive places.

Autism Speaks wishes you and your family a fun, safe and happy holiday season. 

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.