Freeman Medical Musings Blog

Holidays and Autism

Posted by Kristy Parker, Clinical Director of Bill & Virginia Leffen Center for Autism, on December 17, 2015

Like many holidays, Christmas can be a challenge for those on the autism spectrum. Holidays often disrupt routines and bring an array of new foods, sounds and smells – all of which can be overwhelming or distressing for individuals with autism. By planning ahead, you can help your child have an enjoyable holiday.

Family gatherings
To prepare your child for a family gathering, start by telling a story with visual clues to let him or her know what to expect. He or she will want to know when the gathering will start, when it will end and the activities that are planned in between.

Bringing a reinforcing item can also help. For instance, if your child likes a particular video game, and you have a large and family gathering coming up, don’t allow the child to play the video game the day before the event. Then, during the gathering, make the game available to your child. Your child may also have specific food preferences for meals – pack a sack lunch if your child won’t enjoy some the foods that will be served.

Try talking with your family ahead of time to address your child’s needs. For instance, your family may want to arrive to the party a little early so your child can adjust, and you may need to leave early as well. Ask if there is a quiet place where your child can rest if needed. The party’s hosts may also want to make a few arrangements in their home before you arrive – for instance, if your child likes to open doors, they may want to lock all doors they do not want opened. If your child likes to tap on objects, it may be a good idea for glass and other breakables to be moved out of reach.

Your family members may ask you for ideas for appropriate gifts for your child. As with all children, receiving a lot of gifts can be overwhelming for your child. Let your family members know about your child’s individual interests, preferences and strengths. Gift certificates for activities that your child enjoys, such as a bounce house or roller-skating, make great gifts.

Decorating for the holidays
Holiday decorations around your home can be disruptive for your child. My best tip is for parents to remember that their vision for their home for Christmas may not quite match up with the reality of how your home will actually look – and that’s OK! Consider selecting decorations that are child friendly, non-breakable and interactive. Instead of worrying about what your family or neighbors might think of your decorations, try looking at Christmas through the eyes of your child. Your child will always have special memories of how you decorate your house. If your tree is decorated with toy cars only, that’s alright. If decorations have to be hung five feet or higher on the wall, that’s OK, too! 

Holiday travel
Whether traveling by plane or car, pack comforts of home for your child. Having familiar items can be comforting during stressful situations. For instance, if a special blanket or pillow would make your child more comfortable at night, bring that along. If your child uses a special bowl or spoon during breakfast, bring this item, too! Pack your child’s reinforcing items. Be sure to go over all the plans with your child so he or she knows what will happen in advance. Try not to cram too many activities in a short period of time, and schedule in rest time once you’ve arrived at your destination and in between activities.

Holiday family photos
Family photos are a wonderful holiday tradition. Whether planning for a large family photo at a gathering or a photo for your Christmas cards, it’s important to remember some children with autism have difficulties making eye contact with a camera. A photographer friend of mine had a great tip for photographing children with autism – try not to have the expectation that the child has to make eye contact with the camera. Instead of having everyone smiling and looking at the camera, have everyone interacting with each other in the photo and smiling. Mom or Dad can interact with the child. This will put less pressure on your child for the photo, and you’ll still get a wonderful family photo and great memories to look back on for years to come.