It's the holidays! How can I make it a happy one for my child?

This time of year, the majority of Americans are deep in celebratory events and gatherings, from Christmas parties to Hanukkah get-togethers. It’s certainly the most wonderful time of year for a lot of people, but for our little ones with autism, it can be one of the most chaotic and confusing.

During the holiday season, it’s expected that schedules are disrupted. Routine goes out the window. Stress rises, for kids and parents and caregivers alike. So we asked a few families for their tips on how they’ve made past holidays just a little smoother – and maybe some of these can help you too.

Be thoughtful about decorations. Jenny and Tim, whose little guy Archie was diagnosed with autism at two years old and who’s now ten, have spent the last few years making sure Archie is involved in the selection of decorations and the process as a whole. “As an artist, I was always really particular about just how I wanted the tree decorated, how I wanted the house to look,” shares Jenny of their pre-baby days. “But we know that even small changes throughout the year, like if I decide to move the couch from one wall to the other, is really disruptive to Archie, so having this giant tree and all these big, bright decorations just go up one morning without warning would really affect him.

“We’ve made it a family affair, going down to the storage boxes and making a point to touch and talk about the items and put them all up slowly so he’s not overwhelmed. This way he’s felt like he’s been a part of it.”

An added tip? Jenny says that with the use of a calendar, she talks well ahead of time of what’s going to happen – when they’ll be pulling the decorations out of storage, when they’ll be putting up the tree, and even when they’ll be taking everything down. “(By doing this) we’re teaching him to anticipate the season,” she says. “It’s worked well for us to be consistent like this.”

Let them obsess – with limits. Many kids with autism tend to obsess about things they like or want, and during the holidays, this can be a very taxing thing for kids and parents.

Ron, whose young son Nicholas is turning eight the day after Christmas, shares: “We don’t just have the Christmas gifts he endlessly talks about, we have the birthday gift thing too.

“Nicky gets on the topic of what he’s hoping to get and he seems to just not let it go, so much so that you can’t get a word in edgewise about anything else, like school or how his day’s going.

“We came up with this plan about a year ago with the help of our support team, and we’ve given Nicky ten coins. He can have ten minutes to talk about his gifts in exchange for one coin. Once he’s out, he’s out.

“It’s been really helpful,” says Ron with a smile, “and he’s actually been hoarding his coins this year.”

Rehearse and role play. If you’re going on a road trip or leaving on a jet plane, rehearse the upcoming day’s events. You can use storyboards, visual cue cards, or just talk about how the trip might go.

If you celebrate Christmas, you can practice Christmas morning – taking turns handing out gifts, opening the gifts, waiting for others to open theirs, and so on. You may want to practice actions of gratitude, even if they get something they don’t particularly like.

If you’ve got a lot of folks coming over or celebrating with you, and your child may not know them all, pull out your phone or a photo album where you may have pictures saved of everyone you’re expecting. Practice how you’ll greet them and share a little something about each friend or family member with your child.

For Evelyn, the most important thing to rehearse with her eight-year-old son, Michael, is the “exit plan.

“Sometimes it’s just too overwhelming, no matter how much you think you’ve prepared,” she admits. “So we practice how we get to a safe space, and if we can’t get out, safe activities that can help calm his mind and heart.”

Join Our Alliance

Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive important updates and information!