16 Tips for Enjoying the Holidays With an Autistic Child

Smart Ways to Save Your Holidays

Mother kissing daughter's cheek on christmas
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Holidays can be tough for children with autism. They may be even tougher on their parents and siblings. But the good news is that for every problem you might encounter, there are real-world solutions you can put in place to make the season bright!

Sensory Issues

Many people with autism have strong negative reactions to bright lights, loud noises, strong flavors and smells. The holidays can sometimes feel like a sensory assault! When you're facing the probability of a sensory meltdown, here are some strategies to try:

  1. Avoid the sensory challenges. Do you really need to take your child shopping with you, or could you possibly shop online, find a sitter, or ask someone else to pick up some items for you? These days, Internet options are just as good as in-person shopping; you can even get the grocery store to deliver.
  2. Choose sensory-friendly options. While flashing lights on a Christmas tree might overwhelm your child, gently changing lights might charm him. Luckily, modern LED Christmas lights offer multiple ways to enjoy the twinkling. You can also, in many cities, find "sensory friendly" Santas, shops, and other holidays offerings. If these aren't available in your hometown, consider having a small, low-key "visit from Santa" in your own home.
  3. Have a plan B in case of sensory overload. Some children can handle crowds and noise, but only for a limited amount of time. If you decide to take your autistic child to a big holiday event, be sure to have an alternate "plan B" just in case it turns out to be too much for him. If it's just the two of you, you can simply leave. If other siblings or friends are coming along, know in advance which adult will take your autistic child out of the difficult situation while others can stay and enjoy the experience.

    Need for Routine and Predictability

    Most kids with autism thrive in situations that are consistent and predictable. The holidays, of course, are precisely the opposite. Many families welcome new people, new sounds, new smells, new things in the house, and major changes to routines of eating, sleeping, and playing. How can you help your autistic child enjoy these special annual experiences?

    1. Pick and choose. Most people with autism can handle some change to their routines, but very few can flexibly handle complete disruption. Knowing your child as you do, you can pick and choose the kinds of changes he or she can handle most easily. For example, you may decide to put up a tree but stay at home at Christmas, or travel for Christmas but pack along your child's favorite toys and videos and stick to his usual schedule.
    2. Practice. If you're heading for a special event or experience, plan and practice behaviors ahead of time so your child is ready to handle something new. For example, if you're going to church for Christmas services, take your child to the decorated church at a quiet time. Talk with the minister or priest about songs and prayers to expect. How will the Christmas service be the same as or different from other services? If there's an order of service, share it and walk through it with your child. And, as always, have a Plan B just in case your child can't make it through the entire service.
    1. Say "no thanks" when necessary. You're invited to a holiday party and the "whole family" is asked to come. It'll be crowded and loud, and it will keep your child up past bedtime. In cases like this, the best option is usually to just say no (or to hire a sitter if that's a practical option).

    Coping with Extended Family

    Holidays are especially tough with extended family. That's because every family has traditions and expectations, and few families really understand the special needs of an autistic child. Your mom may feel hurt that your child doesn't like her cranberry sauce, while your dad can't figure out why he doesn't want to watch the football game. Your sister may be angry because your child won't play with his cousins, while your brother is sure your child just needs a little "tough love." How can you cope with so many challenges and expectations, all at the same time?

    1. Pre-plan and stick to your guns. You already know which traditions are going to create problems, and you probably have a good idea about how your child will react to each one. Knowing all this, you can make a plan ahead of time and share it with family. The key, of course, is that you'll have to stick to your plan even when family members would rather you didn't. For example, you may need to say "we'll be delighted to open Christmas presents with you in the morning, but then Bobby needs downtime until dinner." You may even need to firmly tell family members that you will stay in a hotel rather than joining cousins at Grandma's house for the weekend.
    2. Bring your own necessities. If you're leaving home for the holidays, don't assume that anyone else will have what your child needs to maintain his or her equilibrium. Bring along a DVD player and videos. Pack your child's favorite foods, blankets, pillow, and other paraphernalia.
    3. Explain your child's needs. Before your mom has a chance to get hurt feelings, be sure she understands that, for example, your child is on a gluten-free diet, or won't eat new foods, or will love a Christmas present provided it's exactly the toy he's expecting and nothing else. Help extended family by giving them some hints and tips about how best to reach out to and include your child (and you) by modifying expectations, choosing specific foods, or turning on particular TV shows.
    1. Help your family to help you. Most families want to do all they can to make you and your child feel welcome, but they need to know what's helpful. Help them to help you!  Let family members know which Christmas presents would be most welcome, which kinds of games and activities your child enjoys, and how to tempt your child with his favorite foods. If it's appropriate in your family, you can also ask for time off so that you, too, can enjoy time with relatives without your child in tow.
    2. Have an escape route. Both you and your child need to know what will happen if you get too much of family fun. What will you tell your family, and where will you go to get away? Is there a quiet room available? If not, can you head home or to a hotel room?  

    More Holiday Tips

    Here are a few more ideas for staying calm and happy during holidays on the autism spectrum.

    1. Keep it simple. You have enough on your plate without having to become Martha Stewart too! Put up a tree, wrap some presents, and stick a turkey in the oven. You're done!
    2. Establish your own traditions. Kids with autism love traditions, and so does everyone else. Try creating your own family traditions that are easy and fun for everyone, including your autistic child.
    3. Lower your expectations. Sure, Christmas can be a time when family and friends get together for a joyous celebration. But it can also be a time of quiet contemplation, or mellow family afternoons, or even an evening in front of the TV watching favorite movies.
    4. Take care of your other kids. If your autistic child has siblings, be sure they don't get pushed aside as you take care of your child with special needs. If there are traditions or experiences they love, they should get the chance to enjoy them. That may mean a little juggling and hard work, but your children will thank you!
    5. Take care of yourself. It's easy to get so busy with your autistic child's needs that you forget your own. But, of course, your child's experience will depend a great deal on your own feelings of calm and seasonal joy. That means you, too, need a chance to experience your favorite holiday events, movies, and food. Call on the help of friends and family, if you need to, but be sure you get that special shot of holiday cheer that makes season bright!