Home for the holidays: Ways to make sure your autistic child enjoys their break

Holiday joy

Holidays can be challenging for children with autism. Time away from school, disruptions in schedule, celebrations and time spent with many people can be overwhelming, says Martha C., a member of our Autism Response Team and mom of an autistic son. Here she shares her tips for helping her son adjust to the change in routine, enjoy the decorations, make the most out of holiday gatherings, and prepare him for present time.

Structuring time away from school

Planning and communication are keys to making sure the change in routine over the holiday break goes smoothly.

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. 

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. Help your child self-regulate and deal with challenging emotions or behavior or with sensory discomfort by planning breaks. 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 attends 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.

Gathering with family and friends

Here are some accommodations to help make holiday festivities fun for your child.

  • Have a favorite or preferred item for your child. This is something that helps calm your child and focus their attention. Examples include fidget spinners, headphones, books or a tablet. Decide on a code word or signal that your child can use to tell you when they need a break.

  • Reconsider decorations such as blinking lights or decorations that make sounds that are distressing to your child. As much as possible, help prevent sensory overload. 

  • 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 and practice greetings and possible questions. The more you can prepare your child for who they will see and the scripts you can give them, the more enjoyable the gathering will be. Prepare your child too that there may be people they don't know. Give them a a simple phrase like, "Pardon me, I have to excuse myself now" to use when they are uncomfortable and need a break.

Giving gifts

While presents can be exciting, the commotion that comes with unwrapping them may not be fun for your child. Prepare them about what to expect when receiving and 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. 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

Caring Santa

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

  • Go see an autism-friendly Santa. Autism Speaks teamed up with Cherry Hill Partners to offer over 500 sensory-friendly Santa Cares events in locations across the U.S. Hear from parents who describe how great the experience was for them and their child, including from one mother whose son had never been able to visit Santa before. 

  • Incorporate special interests. Add your child’s favorite characters to your holiday decorations. 

  • If your child is 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. Ask them to help and incorporate what they like. 

  • Check with local autism organizations or your child’s school to see if they are other activities you can participate in. You can try new activities like vising light shows.

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