Tips For The Holiday Season

Monday, December 3 2018

During the holiday season, children with autism can need extra support. Here are some helpful tips we suggest to help your child stay safe and calm, and reduce their anxiety, and increase your family’s enjoyment of the holiday season.

Tips for the Season for Families

The holiday season can be an especially stressful time for parents of children on the autism spectrum, and it can be a difficult time for those with autism. All the crowds, sounds, decorations, lights and noises of the holiday season, as well as the changes in routines, can be stressful and over-stimulating. Sometimes the stress of these changes can become overwhelming to both the child and parents, and the joy and happiness of the holidays might be lost.

Preparation Is Key

Prepare the child ahead of a major event if possible. Use a visual calendar, visit the location, use social stories to reduce anxiety, practice expected social etiquettes (e.g. unwrapping gifts and saying ‘thank you’).

Think about sensory needs. If your child will be around fireworks, do they need headphones? If at a gathering with lots of people, do they need a quiet zone?

Have a plan for if things if they don’t go as planned.

Think about timing. If your child is sensitive to loud noises, try being early or getting there later depending on what works best for them. Stay for a short period of time if it’s going to be difficult for your child to cope. This would be especially relevant for shopping in the lead up to the end of the year.

Ensure that your child knows what to expect. Where possible, prepare your child for any situation to avoid sudden surprises.

Talk about the holiday and what this means for your family. Discuss all the things that make the holidays different and special. Engage in activities to prepare your child for the holiday season such as read books about the holidays and looking at photos of your children taken at past holiday festivities.

Know your child’s limits. It is important to be familiar with your child’s ability to handle noisy environments and activities. This can help you prepare ahead for stressful situations.

Use behaviour support strategies whenever possible. Use social stories to help your child cope with changes in routine and visual supports to help prepare for more complicated days.

Don’t forget to prepare yourself! A calm and collected parent is better able to help their family enjoy this wonderful time of year.


Decorations around the house may be disruptive for some.It may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house. You can bring your child shopping with you for decorations so they are engaged in the process. Involve them in the process of decorating the house. And once decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can and cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.

You may want to gradually decorate the house. It may be helpful to develop a visual schedule or calendar that shows what will be done on each day.

Flashing lights or musical decorations can disturb some children. To see how your child will respond, provide them an opportunity to experience these items in a familiar environment.


Last minute holiday shopping can be stressful for children who rely on routines. If you do take your child shopping, allow them enough time to gradually adapt to the intense holiday stimuli that stores exhibit this time of year.

If your child has a “meltdown’, stay calm and keep your voice gentle. Your child needs to know that you are in control and you understand how upset they are. Your soothing voice and body language will help them trust you to sort things out for them.

Take safety measures to prevent wandering. Around 50% of children with autism wander from safety, so have a multifaceted approach to safety and plan ahead when going into new environments. You could try giving your child an ID bracelet.

Look for a quiet space. Check out shopping centres and venues in advance. It can be helpful to find a quiet place away from crowds or music to take a break and relieve stress or anxiety if there are signs that your child is becoming overwhelmed.

Family and Travel

Teach your child how to leave a situation and/or how to access support when an event becomes overwhelming.For example, if you are having visitors, have a space set aside for the child as their safe/calm space. This self-management tool will serve the individual into adulthood. For those who are not at that level of self-management, develop a signal or cue for them to show when they are getting anxious, and prompt them to use the space.

If you are travelling, make sure you have their favourite foods, books or toys available.Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Also, prepare them for all situations, e.g. unexpected delays. If you are flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring the individual to the airport in advance and help him/her to become accustomed to airports and planes. Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying.

Prepare a photo album in advance of the people they will be meeting during the holidays.Allow your child to access these photos at all times and also go through the photo album with them while talking briefly about each family member.

Prepare your family members with strategies to use to minimise anxiety or behavioural incidents, and to enhance participation.Help them to understand if your child prefers to be hugged or not, needs calm discussions or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother holiday season. If your child becomes upset, it might also be helpful to coach others to remain calm and neutral in an effort to minimise behavioural outbursts. Also teach them how to support positive behaviour in your child.

Use rehearsal and role play to give children practice ahead of time in dealing with new social situations. Or work together with family and friends to prepare a social story that incorporates all the elements of an upcoming event or visit to better prepare them for that situation.

Holiday Foods

Be mindful of holiday food. Special diets are common among children with autism, such as hypersensitivity to tastes; some foods can be offensive by smell, taste or colour.

Try holiday foods in advance. This will allow you to see what your child likes and doesn’t like, and avoid difficulties at the dinner table.

If you’re planning to eat outside of your home, take your child’s favourite foods with you.

Gifts and Play Time

Practice opening gifts, taking turns and waiting for others, and giving gifts. Role play scenarios with your child in preparation for them getting a gift they do not want. Talk through this process.

Choose toys wisely. Look for toys that provide both fun and learning opportunities. Children can especially benefit from toys that encourage social interaction through play and help build various skills, such as turn-taking and language skills.

Put rules in place around gifts. Explain ahead of time that gifts aren’t meant to be opened without the rest of the family there, and avoid temptation by waiting until Christmas Eve to bring out particularly large packages. When it’s time to open gifts, you can try passing an ornament as a signal for whose turn it is to open gifts to avoid any confusion.

Open and play. Set up toys that need construction before wrapping them. It can be more fun and less frustrating if your child can open the gift and play with it immediately.

Prepare siblings and young relatives to share their new gifts with others.If necessary, consider giving your child a quiet space to play with their own gifts, away from the temptation of grabbing at other children’s gifts.

Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or distress. An increase in behaviour, such as humming or rocking, may indicate that it’s time to take a break from the activity.

Understand how much noise and other sensory input your child can manage. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may require.

Sensitive-Friendly Holiday Events

There are still a few centres that run a ‘Sensory Santa’ or ‘Sensitive Santa’ in limited time slots. We recommend you do a search of your local area for these if that’s something you would like.


Appreciate these memories – if the day doesn’t go exactly as you’ve planned, that’s okay. Cherish even the smallest holiday moments together.

Importantly, try to always positively reinforce your child along the way for tolerating situations. Remember to relax, don’t get unduly stressed – your child may react to that stress. And most of all, enjoy a wonderful holiday!