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Holiday Tips

Helping Parents of Kids with Autism Handle the Unique Challenges of the Holiday Season
April 23, 2007

The holiday season is a joyful time, but as we all know, it can also be incredibly stressful. Nobody appreciates this more than the parents and families of children with autism, who already face unique challenges.

Routines and structure are more difficult to maintain during the chaos of the holidays, and kids with autism must deal with new faces, places and a disruption of their schedules. And, since many children with autism are also sensitive to noise, touch and light, the din of the holidays can become disorienting and overwhelming. This can mean a new level of stress and anxiety.

The following are tips provided by medical experts, educators and families of kids with autism. Several of the professionals and parents are available to discuss these and other ideas for making the holidays more fun for everyone involved:

  • Plan ahead whenever possible. Compile a list of activities that can help your child fill his or her time wherever you go.
  • Use rehearsal and role play to give children practice ahead of time in dealing with new social situations, or work together to write a "social story" that incorporates all the elements of an upcoming event or visit to better prepare them for that situation.
  • If you are going to visit family or friends, make sure there is a quiet, calm place for retreat.
  • Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or distress, including an increase in behaviors such as humming or rocking - they may indicate it's time for a break.
  • Engage kids with autism in repetitive activities such as stringing popcorn for trimming the tree.
  • Practice unwrapping gifts ahead of time, which will help a child with autism learn the understanding and the meaning of gifts.
  • Take toys and other gifts out of the box before wrapping them. It is more fun and less frustrating if a child with autism can open the gift and play with it immediately.
  • Try to relax and have a good time. If you are tense your child may sense that something isn't right.
  • Get a list of gift ideas for relatives from your child's teacher and therapists.
  • Don't shield your child from the extended family. Family members need to understand the challenges you face.
  • Take pictures when you and your child trim the tree, visit relatives, open gifts, etc. Make a book about your holiday by gluing the pictures onto construction paper, writing a short sentence under each picture, and stapling the pages together. When someone asks your child a question regarding the holidays, your child can use the book as a visual cue to help tell about the things he or she did.

Tips provided by: Dr. Gary Goldstein, clinical scientific advisor for Autism Speaks and president and chief executive officer of the Kennedy Krieger Institute; Dr. Fred Volkmar, director of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic; Dr. Melissa Nishawala, clinical director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders Service; Dr. John Brown, Director, Reed Academy; Dr. Ivy Feldman, educational director, The McCarton School; and Diane Marshall, mother of a son with autism.