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Tips for Handling the Holidays When Your Child Has Autism
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Written by Diana Fitts   

The holidays can be overwhelming for your child with autism or sensory challenges. When leaving the normal routine behind, all of the sights, sounds, smells, and people can be a lot to take in. Don’t let the thought of a chaotic holiday keep you at home this year. The following tips will help you ease the pressure of the holidays so that it’s the family fun you hoped for.


1)    Review Holiday Plans in Detail Before Hand

Sometimes the thought of a stressful event can be more stressful than the event itself. Once you know your holiday plans, go over them with your child in detail. Talk about everything from when you’ll be leaving the house to what you’ll be eating. Ask if your child has any questions and if there are any aspects of the plan that are causing nervousness. Do your best to put any nerves at ease and come up with solutions to any questions left unanswered. Leaving as little up to imagination as possible will go a long way in preparing your child for the event to come.


2)    Let Your Child Wear Something Comfortable

While a suit and tie or a frilly dress sound appropriate for a fancy holiday event, putting your child in an uncomfortable outfit will only exacerbate his or her frustrations. Find a cute jumper that your child likes, or invest in seamless shirts and pants that look festive. Even if your child isn’t the fanciest person at the party, being comfortable will help prevent meltdowns stemming from an uncomfortable holiday outfit that turns out to bring anything but holiday cheer.


3)    Embrace Traditions

If your child struggles with change to his or her routine, do your best to establish holiday traditions. The comfort of doing the same thing every year will allow your child to mentally prepare for the holidays all year long. It will also allow you to focus on past problem areas so that you can rectify them before the holidays come around again. Was Christmas caroling overwhelming last year? Focus on getting your child used to musical events throughout the year. Did sitting still at the family dinner last New Year’s Eve turn into a meltdown? Practice having formal meals leading up to the next holiday gathering.

Throughout the year, talk with your child about past holiday memories and get excited about the year to come. Creating positivity and comfort around holiday family traditions will make each passing year easier and easier.


4)    Have a Time Out Signal

No matter how prepared you are for the holidays, when your child is prone to sensory overload and becoming overwhelmed, there’s bound to be moments when your child needs to step aside and take a moment to calm down. It’s important that the need for these calm down moments are honored so that overwhelming events don’t end in meltdowns.

Determine a signal that your child can use to alert you to the need for some time away from a holiday event. When you see the signal, do everything in your power to find a space for your child to be alone and calm down. Allowing for self-imposed time outs will let your child have more emotional control and provide good practice with emotional regulation. This will also ease anticipation of the upcoming holiday event, as your child will know that there’s room for quiet moments within the loud holiday merriment.


When your child has autism or sensory issues, the holidays don’t have to be stressful. With some proper planning and discussion with your child, you can turn a holiday season full of meltdowns into a holiday season full of fun memories.


Diana Fitts is the founder of The Sensory Toolbox and a registered and licensed Occupational Therapist specializing in Sensory Processing Disorders. To follow her work on the topic, visit www.thesensorytoolbox.com

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