16 ways to make holidays easier for a child with autism

I am pleased to introduce our new blogger Cathy Pratt. Dr. Pratt is the Director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, and today’s post is the first of three we’ll be publishing by her about holiday tips

christmas tree drawingSocial stories and visual supports for the holidays

by Cathy Pratt, Ph.D., BCBA-D

While many happily anticipate the coming holiday season, families with sons/daughters on the autism spectrum also understand the special challenges that may occur when schedules are disrupted and routines broken.

The following tips were developed with input from the Autism Society of America, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Easter Seals Crossroads, Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at Logan, and the Indiana Autism Leadership Network. We update our list of suggestions annually, and our hope is that by following these few helpful tips as the holiday approaches, families may lessen the stress and anxiety created by the holiday season and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone.

  • Preparation is crucial for most individuals. At the same time, it is important to determine how much preparation a specific person may need. For example, if your son or daughter has a tendency to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her.
  • Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the date of holiday events, or by creating a Social Story that highlights what will happen at a given event.
  • Prepare a photo album in advance of the relatives and other guests who will be visiting during the holidays. Allow the child access to these photos at all times and also go through the photo album with your child while talking briefly about each family member.
  • If your child has difficulty with change, you may want to gradually decorate the house. For example, on the first day put up the Christmas tree, then on the next day decorate the tree and so on.
  • Engage them as much as possible in the decorating process. For some it may also be helpful to take them shopping with you for holiday decorations so that they are part of the process.
  • It may be helpful to develop a visual schedule or calendar that shows what will be done on each day.
  • It may also be helpful to inform them of the process for removing decorations, since this process may be disruptive for some individuals as well.
  • If having decorations around the house does become disruptive for some, it may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house.
  • If such a book does not exist, use this holiday season to create a picture book
  • Consider involving your son or daughter in the process of decorating the house.
  • Once holiday decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can be touched and those that cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.
  • Understand that with some individuals, decorations may not be feasible.
  • If you are traveling for the holidays, arrange to have the child’s favorite foods, books or toys available. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations.
  • Use social stories or other communication systems to prepare them for any unexpected delays in travel.
  • If your son/daughter is flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring your child to the airport in advance to help them become accustomed to airports and planes
  • Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying.

You can see examples of numerous visual supports on our website, and stay tuned for my next holiday post about ways to respond to a child with autism who begins obsessing about a particular gift or toy they want.

On a related note, Easter Seals also offers unique gift ideas for caregivers, including parents who care for children with and without disabilities. Many of the ideas are free and all are from the heart.


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