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Learn About Navigating Autism and the Holidays

by Jaime Friedman

November 24, 2022


Family Gatherings

Holiday season is fast approaching. For some people, this can be an especially challenging time of the year. Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder commonly struggle with certain aspects of holiday celebrations, but with the right practice and accommodations, holidays can be fun for everyone to celebrate.

Thanksgiving is just about here, and depending on what your family celebrates, another major holiday could be following before the new year. Parents of children with Autism do not need to dread the holiday season each year; instead, parents can start to view each family gathering or holiday event as an opportunity for practice of skills. In general, children with Autism struggle with social skills and sensory sensitivity, and the holidays provide unique challenges in these two areas. 

Much like with Halloween, parents are encouraged to make necessary changes to holiday plans to account for their child’s needs, while still planning to include the child in as much as they can handle. If a child is dealing with severe sensory, social or learning deficits, some traditions and customs can always be adjusted to accommodate them and ensure they are included. If the holiday tradition in question proves inflexible, then new traditions can always be started.

Planning for Success

Problem behaviors and sensory overloads can be avoided by mentally preparing children for the holiday season. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or another holiday, each winter brings waves of change through your house and community. By taking time to explain your expectations of the holiday or even practicing different parts of a party, you can help normalize any causes for uncertainty. Additionally, Autism of PA has some suggestions that parents may find helpful for the lead-up to a holiday party.

If your child struggles with social aversions, you could try showing them pictures of family members expected to be at the gathering, or you could even schedule visits leading up to the gathering. You can also show them how the decorations will be set up and whether there will be any changes to the kitchen furniture orientation to serve people. While making arrangements, be sure to ask your child for help whenever possible. Helping set up lets them take some ownership of the party and mentally prepares them for what your family has planned.

There are advantages to hosting a holiday party, like your child being in a comfortable environment and having more control in general. If you cannot host, however, make sure to work closely with whoever does host. That way, you will not need to deal with surprises on the day of the party.

Your party’s menu (or at least the kids’ portion) may also need to be set well in advance, depending on your child’s needs. Children with autism may have dietary restrictions and/or preferences. If the host’s menu does not match, parents can plan to bring a meal along or offer to bring a dish that they know their child will eat.

In case of sensory overload, it may be beneficial to bring a calm down kit with you. Wherever the party takes place, you should also have a designated safe space picked out well before the day of the party. If anything does go wrong, you will have sensory toys and a quiet place to help your child. Caring for children with Autism and other special needs can cause parents to have their own anxiety when leaving the home. It is okay to say “no” to invites. Taking care of yourself, as well as your child, mentally and physically is the most important aspect during the holiday season. 

Every child with Autism Spectrum Disorder has their own unique set of challenges. Just like any other obstacle throughout the year, the holiday season can be conquerable with the right amount of individualized care and attention.