Help Make the Holidays Easier for Autistic Children

Pumpkin Patch

A stroll through a pumpkin patch is a great way to kick off the holiday season!

Most of us look forward to late autumn as the leaves change color, the air gets that crisp, clean feeling, and pumpkins start appearing in the markets and on front porches… all signs that the Holiday Season is quickly approaching.

First comes the teaser, Halloween, with its haunted houses, costumes, trick or treating, and overdosing on candy. Then came the wait for Thanksgiving and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade to kick off the Holiday Season.

These days however, it seems that, rather than on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, the Christmas Season unofficially begins the day after Halloween, on November 1st. (What next? Labor Day?)

Spidey Parade

Spidey swings above the streets of NYC at Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

The Holiday Season can be especially challenging for families with children on the autism spectrum. Things that come along with this time of years, that we normally give little or no thought about, can be difficult for children with autism to deal with.

So what can we do to make this time of year less stressful and more joyous for our children with autism? One way is to plan ahead in preparation of the holidays. These few tips from Jennifer Seletzky-Davidson of TrueNorth Wellness Services can help turn “Holidaze” into Happy Holidays.
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Start off the season slowly

While we like to believe that everybody likes a surprise, a quick overnight addition of holiday decorations can be quite a bit disconcerting for an autistic child who finds comfort and stability in familiar surroundings. It’s a good idea to prepare your child ahead of time for the changes to come.

One way to ease them into the season is to look at holiday pictures from previous years, or from magazines, with your child to help them become more comfortable and familiar with the idea that their surroundings may look a bit different for a while.

It may also be a good idea to schedule decorating the house in stages over the weeks leading up to the holidays. Lesser decorations for Thanksgiving can ease your child into the concept of a changing environment. Also, let them help with each decorating stage, which can allow them to accept the changes more easily.
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Don’t surprise your guests

While close family members most likely are well aware of your child’s situation, not all your holiday guests may be aware of it. It may be beneficial to prepare your friends and relatives that will be visiting or that you will be visiting. Explain the difficulties your child has with the vibrant, loud, and potentially disorienting holiday environment. Meeting new people, holiday decorations, unfamiliar music, etc. can all be stressers that need to be dealt with. Let them know your child is not consciously being disruptive or misbehaving, and that he or she is learning how to handle these situations as best they can.

If you are going visit someone’s home for a holiday meal, make sure to explain any dietary restrictions so your host can plan to accommodate their needs. Having food available that your child can eat without making a big deal out of it can go along way to relieving problems when the meal begins. If they have food allergies or limited foods they will eat, you may want bring their own foods with you.

Ask your host if they can provide a safe, childproof, quiet room where they can get away from the commotion and noise for a while, if need be.
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Prepare your child

Before the potentially hectic holiday season begin, you should prepare your child for the upcoming events. Tips that Seletzky-Davidson offers to help with this include:

  • Make a social stories book about what will be happening and the behavioral expectations (Carol Gray’s website can help you,
  • Make a photo album together of relatives and friends they will be seeing.
  • Read stories that talk about the holiday celebrations similar to what your family has planned.
  • Play some of the music he or she may be hearing at this holiday season.
  • Practice unwrapping presents by wrapping a bunch of boxes up with favorite treats inside and opening them on multiple days leading up to the holidays.
  • Practice greetings, hugs and handshakes that may be expected by family and friends.
  • Write rules together, i.e. how long your child thinks he or she can tolerate sitting at table, and identify expected behavior.
Family Dinner

These simple tips can help make your child’s holiday season, and yours, as merry as possible.

On the day of the holiday celebration, remind your child of the agreed-upon rules. Pack some toys, headphones and music, or other favorite items that soothe, or that he or she can play with in a quiet spot to help self regulate if the noise and stimulation become too much.
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Block out time for breaks

Explain to your child that it is perfectly okay if they feel that they need to get away from all the hubbub. Teach them how to leave the room without being disruptive. When you arrive at a new place, show them where they can go with their toys, books, music, etc. for some quiet time.

Arrive early so that your child can acclimate to the noise level as it builds up. Be prepared to leave early before your child reaches his or her breaking point. Watch for early signs that a meltdown may be on its way.

Above all, Seletzky-Davidson reminds us not to let the expectations of others ruin your day. Do what you need to do to make it as comfortable as possible for you and your child. Parents know their children the best, so know and plan for how much noise and sensory input they can take.
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About Jennifer Seletzky-Davidson

Jennifer Seletzky-Davidson, MS, NCC, LPC, BCBA, is the program director for Amazing Kids Club, a program of TrueNorth Wellness Services that focuses on social relationships for those with developmental disorders normally associated with the autism spectrum.

The Amazing Kids Club focuses on social relationships. Less intense than one-on-one strategies, the Club is designed as either a stand-alone program or a supplement to other more intense forms of treatment for kids suffering from development disorders normally associated with the Autism Spectrum and other disabilities.

About Carol Gray

Carol Gray, Consultant to Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Autism, provides support via workshops and presentations, information, referral, resources, and direct services to individuals with autism, their families, and professionals who work on their behalf.

Carol is best known for the development of Social Stories, a respected evidence-based practice used worldwide with people with autism of all ages. Carol was the first teacher for students with autism at Jenison Public Schools in Jenison, Michigan 1977-2004. In 1989, Carol began writing stories for her students to share information with them that they seemed to be missing, information that so many of us take for granted. Many of the stories resulted in immediate and marked improvement in her students’ responses to daily events and interactions.
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Ref:, “Holiday tips for people with Autism” (11/16/2015); Jennifer Seletzky-Davidson, TrueNorth Wellness Services