Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

November 28, 2018

Navigating the holidays with children who have ASD

By: Christina McGillicuddy, PsyD

The holidays can be a stressful time for many and having a child with autism can make it even more challenging. Here are some tips on preparing for and handling various events and situations throughout the holiday season.

  • Family Gatherings:
      1. You can look at family photos to remind your child who will be there and what their names are.
      2. You can go to the family member’s house ahead of time to familiarize your child with the environment and see how he or she reacts to certain stimuli. If there are certain things in the environment that might cause problems, you can better prepare or talk to your family member about making some changes.
      3. You can role play and practice how to act and what to say around others. For example, how to introduce yourself, how to handle if someone tries to hug or kiss you, how to respond to questions, or what to ask other family members.
      4. Use social stories to explain what the environment will look like, what to expect when there, how to behave at the family gathering and, and what coping tools will be available.
      5. Talk to family members ahead of time about specific foods that might be available or decorations that could cause problems. Make accommodations accordingly by bringing your own food for your child and bringing other tools that could be used to keep your child calm (i.e. headphones, stuffed animals, stress balls).
      6. Do not overschedule! Be realistic about what your child can handle and do not schedule too many get-togethers or holiday parties.
      7. Teach and practice coping skills ahead of time in case your child becomes overwhelmed. Have tools readily available if you are away from the house (squishy balls, coloring materials, books, etc.).
  • Vacations or trips away from the house:
    1. Provide your child with a visual schedule for each day.
    2. Use social stories to explain the location, what it will look like, what activities will be included.
    3. Bring toys, books, headphones, food, etc… that your child likes in case they are not available at your final destination.
    4. If you are flying, talk to the airline company about special accommodations that can be accessed for children with disabilities (boarding early or late, location of seats, etc..)
    5. Have a plan if behavioral problems arise (who is in charge, how to react or deal with certain behaviors, and how to explain to others that your child has autism).
  • Decorating the house:
    1. Look at pictures together of your holiday decorations from previous years or if you don’t have any, look at pictures online or in magazines.
    2. Decorate gradually and build up tolerance. Each day add a couple of new items rather than decorating the entire house overnight.
    3. Involve the child in decorating, particularly if they have a hard time with change, so that they can see the progress and be in control of the new changes.
    4. Be mindful of items that cause too much distress and avoid those decorations.
    5. Be aware of safety and keep dangerous items out of reach.
  • Handling gifts:
    1. If your child is perseverating on a certain gift (continuing to talk about it over and over), allow them to talk about it certain number of times a day (provide chips and once the chips are all out then he or she can no longer talk about it for the day).
    2. Role play and practice opening gifts, waiting for others to open their gifts, and saying thank you to those who give them the gift.