Preparing Children with Autism for the Holiday Season

Preparing Children with Autism for the Holiday Season

The holidays are a special time of the year filled with fun, family, and gifts. The holidays also bring a change in routines, as well as new sights, sounds, faces, and activities that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might struggle to cope with. It is possible, however, for autistic kids and their families to avoid the stress and anxiety that usually accompany the overstimulation of the holidays. But preparation is essential.


This article lists some things you can look for that might affect your child. It also offers suggestions to help your child cope, such as creating visual schedules or using social stories and sensory activities. By being prepared and keeping these tips in mind, you can help your child and family survive (and enjoy) the season!


Change in the Schedule

Routines provide consistency, predictability, and security for many autistic kids. However, schools being closed for the holidays means their morning and after-school routines are disrupted. Families also tend to plan more get-togethers, take longer trips, and do more shopping during the holiday season. Together, these can cause stressful upheavals in the daily schedules children with autism rely on.

Ways to help children with autism cope

Preparation will be your biggest ally during the holidays, especially if you start reworking schedules and prepping for the changes before the holidays are in full swing.


  • Try as much as possible to maintain the routines your child is accustomed to for most of the day, such as bedtime, bath time, and mealtimes.
  • Write down the new routine in words or by creating a visual schedule if this is what your child is used to.
  • Introduce the new schedule to your child ahead of time. Then, once it is implemented, be sure to point out the new activities in the schedule to your child throughout the day.
  • Use different sensory activities to help calm children who might be overwhelmed by the new experiences and new places they encounter in the schedule. 
  • Plan which everyday items will make appropriate distractions for your child for each new event in the schedule. For instance, having your child’s favorite snacks, books, toys, or video games on hand can help them cope.


Environments Looking Different

Decorations are a big part of the season, helping everyone get into the holiday spirit. For kids with autism, however, they make even the most familiar spaces seem entirely different. This can lead to anxiety and stress. Since seeing homes, buildings, and public spaces getting decked out isn’t completely unavoidable, you will have to find ways to make it all less daunting for your child.

Ways to help children with autism cope

While you can’t control how other spaces will change for the season, you can control the changes made to your home.


  • Make the changes gradual for your child by adding items, such as the tree, lights, and decorations, over several days instead of all at once.
  • Consider ways to involve your child in selecting and putting up holiday decorations. Your child might feel pride, accomplishment, and connection from having had a hand in dressing up the house for the season.
  • Create a schedule for when each stage of the decorations will take place, who will be involved, and their duties.
  • Talk with your child about the decorations you will be putting up and let them see these beforehand. If the items are from previous years, pictures of those occasions may be helpful to look at and discuss.
  • Consider taking a subtler approach to decorate your home, especially if your autistic child is sensitive to lights or sounds.
  • Consider, too, if it might not be better to avoid the constant over-stimulation and anxiety by simply going without decorating your home.


Different Faces

Social gatherings are a fundamental part of the holiday season, but they are also occasions on which children on the spectrum may become overwhelmed. It can be stressful to meet and interact with unfamiliar family members, particularly if they have not been sensitized to your child’s condition.


Ways to help children with autism cope

  • You can “introduce” your child to unfamiliar relatives the days before a gathering by showing them pictures of the people they will meet. Talk briefly about who each person is, their relationship to you and your child, occasions on which your child might have met them before, etc.
  • You can use social stories to familiarize your child with who and what to expect at a gathering. A social story is a short book with pictures and simple text. It helps your child understand a particular social situation.


For example: You and your child may have to attend an upcoming family gathering and gift exchange at Grandpa’s home. While there, your child will be meeting Cousin Bobby for the first time.

The social story you create could include a picture of Grandpa, a picture of Cousin Bobby, and photos of gifts or gifts being exchanged. Example sentences include: We are going to Grandpa’s house on Sunday. Cousin Bobby will be there. We will exchange gifts. We will say “Thank you” and “You are welcome.”


  • Meeting new people can be quite stressful for autistic kids if those relatives are unaware of your family’s challenges. It will be helpful to your child if you prepare your extended family ahead of time. Alert them of how gatherings abuzz with new people, new foods, and loud noises affect your child.


Tell them beforehand what situations or issues might arise that could prove difficult for your child. Does your child like hugs or prefers not to be hugged? What should relatives do if your child experiences overstimulation and has a meltdown or emotional outburst?


Long-Distance Travel

Whether it’s a road trip or air travel, long-distance journeys can be complex for any child. Sitting for long periods, boredom, and uncertainty about what to expect at their destination may cause anxiety and stress.

If your family will be flying, an important step is to book your flight early. That way, you are less likely to deal with the hassles and wait times with connecting flights. If going by car, plan frequent stops to break the journey into more manageable bits for your child. Here are a few more suggestions:


Ways to help children with autism cope

  • Have (actual or representational) pictures of things your child will see along the way - the airport, the ocean, mountains, farmlands, busy city streets, monuments or landmarks, etc.
  • Take along familiar food, toys, and books to help occupy and calm your child during long rides, flights, and wait times.
  • Sensory activities like sensory bottles are an excellent option when your child needs to sit still. A skipping rope, on the other hand, is one of those sensory activities that will engage your child’s vestibular and proprioception systems (and help them use up excess energy) at their destination or during wait times.
  • A fidget toy or even a little hand lotion can be the magic you need to distract your child and prevent overstimulation.
  • A child with autism going on their first flight could benefit significantly from a pre-travel visit to the airport.
  • A social story could help a first-time traveler anticipate what happens on arrival at the airport and during the boarding process. Another story could cover what happens during the flight, disembarking, and leaving the airport.


Larger Crowds

The hustle and bustle may be a natural part of the holidays, but kids on the spectrum tend to perceive crowds differently than others. Being in crowded spaces may prove to be upsetting for your child.

Keep in mind how your child has handled being in crowded and noisy settings in the past. What is usually the first sign that they are experiencing sensory overload? How will you manage a meltdown if one occurs?


Ways to help children with autism cope

  • Choose less busy times for shopping or for viewing holiday sights. Keep in mind that some larger stores now offer “quiet hours” that are set aside for those needing a quieter shopping experience.
  • Take along headphones or noise-canceling earphones for your child. These can sufficiently muffle the crowd and play your child’s favorite tunes.
  • A festive brimmed hat or pair of shades can help to cut the glare of bright lights while helping your child feel like a part of the celebrations.
  • Encourage your child to take along something they can focus on, a favorite toy to distract them from the bustling crowds.
  • Have an exit strategy. Know the quickest ways to the exit and away from the crowds in case your child cannot handle the situation.
  • If possible, avoid going to specific locations and events that aren’t worth the risk of distressing your child.


Get Support From ECCM

The holidays can be stressful for everyone. If things seem to be overwhelming for your child, contact ECCM. Ensuring the health and safety of persons with autism is one of the services we provide. We can help support you by identifying the types of services you need and putting you in contact with qualified providers. Reach out to us so you and your family can have a happy holiday!


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