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Holiday Tips for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

When you think of the holidays, you can't help but think of children. The excitement, magic and joy of this time of year are all somehow connected to kids. However, with the added hustle and bustle of the season, children with autism spectrum disorder may feel added frustration and confusion with the change in routines, expectations and activities. Dr. Oscar Bukstein, Medical Director for DePelchin Children’s Center, offers advice for parents as they navigate the holiday season to ensure a child with autism spectrum disorder is also able to enjoy this time of year.

1. Storytelling is a powerful way to communicate a message to your child. Create a “social story” that describes an upcoming event your family has taking place (i.e., holiday party, family visitors, vacation). Use the story to discuss potential emotions, situations and solutions.  For example, if your extended family is coming to visit and they are staying with you in your home, you may want to write a story about what your child should expect during their visit. From their arrival to everyday interactions, discuss how to handle favorable and unfavorable situations, along with the possible feelings involved, when you have guests in your home.

2. While most families look forward to decorating for the holidays, be careful not to overwhelm your child by putting up too many decorations at one time. Many children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty with changes to their environment.  Parents can help their children with autism spectrum disorder manage the addition of holiday decorations by slowly incorporating various items around the house. Try adding a couple of decorations each day as well as having your child assist with the decorations so they feel ownership and understand the process.    

3. Encourage your child to create a list of gifts that they would like to receive over the holidays.  Have them rank the gifts from most preferred to least preferred. Discuss with your child that they may not receive all the gifts on their list or may receive a gift that was not on their list.  Role play appropriate reactions to both preferred and non-preferred gifts ahead of time by giving your child non-preferred gifts and practicing appropriate reactions.

4. Incorporate some sort of visual or festive objects to assist in teaching your child to wait their turn when opening gifts. For instance, you could pass around a candy cane and whoever is holding the candy cane gets to open a gift. When they are finished opening their gift, they will pass the candy cane to the next person.  

5. The holiday season is a time for gathering with friends and family, but remember, being around a lot of people can be overwhelming for children with autism spectrum disorder.  If your family has plans to attend a holiday party or spend time at someone else’s home, plan ahead by designating a certain area for your child to “take a break” or “calm down” if they become overwhelmed or overstimulated by a large gathering of people.  

6. Even if your child has dietary restrictions, there are ways they can still participate in holiday parties or gatherings. Let the hostess of the holiday party know in advance of any special dietary requests, so they can incorporate specific food items or offer to bring your own food items so that your child can participate in the celebration.  

7. Just as it is important to not overwhelm your child when putting the decorations up, the same rule needs to apply when putting them away after the holiday season. Prepare your child about what happens after the holidays by creating a calendar that indicates how many days until decorations are removed from the house. For example, if your family has a Christmas tree, create a calendar that shows how many days until the tree will be removed.