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Celebrate the holidays with your child with autism spectrum disorder

Every December, Joanna, mom to Kyle and Jeremy (who both have autism), looks forward to celebrating the holidays – with caution.

“Both boys have autism but have different needs,” she explains. “Kyle loves all the twinkling lights and the Christmas music, all the things you’d think would be too much for a boy (on the spectrum). Jeremy, on the other hand, thinks it’s all too much. He doesn’t like nutcrackers, he’s completely averse to traditional holiday foods, like turkey and stuffing… he is already pretty particular about the foods he eats on a regular basis and can’t have them touching on the plate, so the feast that comes at Christmas is a bit of a nightmare for him.”

And so Joanna must be careful about respecting both her kids’ needs, desires, discomforts and limitations, which she promises can absolutely be done.

“What I’ve learned these last five or six years of living as an autism family is that yeah, things can be difficult, probably more so than if we weren’t an autism family, but it’s completely manageable, especially when you remember you don’t have to do it like anyone else,” she suggests. “What makes your family happy? What works for you?”

Here, some tips on how to celebrate the holidays and make it the most enjoyable experience for everyone in your household:

1. Decorate slowly. If your autistic child has challenges with sensory overload, or is resistant to change, you may not want to throw up a thousand and one lights, fifteen stuffed elves and two tightly packed trees into your living room all at once. Perhaps simply put up the tree on the first day, and ask them to help you put on some ornaments. The next day, string up the garland. And so on. You may even want to introduce a calendar through which you can share just what you’re going to be doing day by day, so your child isn’t surprised or overwhelmed with the activity.

2. Allow them to obsess about a desired gift – but with a limit. Be specific about how often they can ask or talk about a certain gift they might really want. A suggestion from some experts is to give them five playing cards. Each playing card represents five minutes that they can talk about their gift. When they run out of cards, they’ve run out of opportunities to talk about this gift. (Now, if you’re definitely not going to get them this gift – let’s say for example they’re asking for a life-sized dinosaur, make sure you tell them well before the big day rolls around.)

3. If you’re traveling, pack comfort items. This means carrying with you any favorite toys, books, blankets or other familiar things they use to help them manage stressful situations. Especially in this era of uncertainty, things like travel delays are commonplace – and certainly stressful enough for a typically developing child, but even more so for one on the spectrum.

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