Holidays are a time for celebrating with loved ones, for sharing traditional meals and reflecting on thankfulness and gratitude. They are also a time of challenges for those on the autism spectrum and their families. Busy schedules, crowds and changes in routine go along with the holiday season and can be difficult for those on the autism spectrum. Those with autism may experience anxiety and stress due to the increased stimuli of extra activities, overcrowded stores and loud holiday music and this anxiety can result in undesired behaviors. Planning ahead for the upcoming holiday hustle and bustle can help reduce or eliminate those anxiety-based behaviors.
Here are some tips for preparing for a successful and happy holiday season:
1. Prepare your son or daughter for changes in routine by discussing holiday plans, creating a social story or developing a timeline of activities.
2. Familiarize your child with unfamiliar events, places and people by looking at pictures of previous family holidays.
3. Whenever possible, avoid taking your child shopping during the most crowded times.
4. Include your child in holiday decorating or baking if they show an interest. Discuss rules about each activity.
5. Practice eating unfamiliar holiday foods ahead of time and be sure to include some of your child’s favorites in the holiday menu.
6. Have your child’s favorite activities and devices nearby during the celebration or meal and be sure to include batteries and chargers. Bring well-loved familiar items as well as a few new items that may be of interest.
7. Practice opening gifts in a group, with everyone waiting their turn calmly and quietly.
8. Prepare your host if celebrating at someone else’s home
• In addition to preparing your child for celebrating in someone else’s home, have a conversation with your host’s family as well, letting them know what they might expect from your child. Give them examples of things they might offer your child to make them feel comfortable: a favorite snack or quiet spot if they need it.
• If there are unfamiliar pets in the host’s home, prepare beforehand how that will be handled when your family arrives.
9. Practice unfamiliar religious activities
• Create a timeline of what to expect at church, temple or holiday meal
• Visit a church/temple beforehand
• Practice kneeling, sitting closely in a group, singing, being quiet during prayer, etc.
• Seat yourselves near an exit in case you need to leave quickly
10. Plan for successful travel
• Discuss and practice for airline travel, e.g., taking shoes off, waiting in line, putting belongings in bin, going through x-ray scanners, etc.
• Pack a special bag of items to keep your child interested and occupied
• Pack favorite pajamas, pillow or other beloved sleep items, as well as other personal care items if your holiday involves sleeping away from home
• Contact airline and TSA Cares (855-787-2227) and inform them of your travel plans
• For more tips on travel, see Away We Go! Traveling with Individuals/Family Members with Autism