Celebrating Christmas with Your Child on the Autism Spectrum

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While the holidays are regarded with anticipation and joy for most families, families with children on the autism spectrum may have mixed feelings. It is always best to plan for what you can anticipate and expect the unexpected. The holidays are a time when your child, who thrives on routines and sameness, is out of his or her comfort zone. He or she will be asked to visit unfamiliar places, try new things, be in the company of many people (some of whom are strangers), eat different foods, and… enjoy the sights and smells of the season!

Who are we kidding!!!!!!!!

The following are a few ideas to consider:

  • There are so many Holiday celebrations! Consider whether to attend all, none, or perhaps arrive for the last part of the holiday party.
  • Consider attending the less popular church service, where there will be fewer in attendance.
  • Think of ways to incorporate special events around the regular routine.
  • Plan for the days ahead and begin to talk about it. Perhaps note on a calendar what you will do, who will be there, what it will be like for each day you have something special planned.
  • Dress in comfortable clothes, and bring a change – the excitement can bring on any type of accident.
  • Pack a “safety net bag” with your child’s favorite calming toys. These may be stress balls, video games (fully charged), and headphones to muffle sound as well as to listen to favorite music.
  • Bring food that you know your child will enjoy. While the holiday treats are favorites for many of us, not all children on the autism spectrum enjoy different tastes, textures, and smells. If chicken nuggets are what your child enjoys most, and they are not on the menu, bring some along. This will be one less complication to deal with.
  • Is there a quiet place your child can go to regroup and settle down if he or she becomes over stimulated or over excited? Consider having this discussion with your host or hostess before the event so they can make a room or area of their home quiet, safe, and comfortable for your child.
  • Plan an exit strategy with your partner. You know your child, and you know how long he or she will last. Try to leave before the meltdown begins!
  • Consider taking two cars to every event you attend as a family. This way one parent can leave early with the child who has had enough, while the other stays through dessert and beyond.
  • Gifts – less is more. It is much better to give one gift at a time, so not to be overwhelmed with the presents, the packages, a multitude of new toys. If the gift is something your child might not appreciate, such as new clothing, consider not having your child open it. Just have the new clothes available, or present these at another time, perhaps at home.
  • Certainly every family has special traditions and expectations. Families of a child on the autism spectrum may need to adapt some or all of these traditions to work for their child on the spectrum!

Additionally, writing a Social Story™ — or several Social Stories™ — may be helpful. Below are some ideas to include:

  1. Getting dressed in holiday clothes (or not)
  2. Getting in the car
  3. Things to do on the way
  4. Picture of the location (outside) of the event
  5. Picture of the inside of the place you will be and/or how it will be decorated for the holidays
  6. Pictures of who will be there
  7. Pictures of activities you will do there
  8. Pictures of the quiet space to go to if feeling overwhelmed
  9. Gifts – open your present and say “thank you!”
  10. Saying “goodbye, thank you again,” and getting back into the car for the ride home
  11. Things to do on the long car ride home
  12. Home

Keeping a notated calendar is also helpful for many children. Make a large copy of the calendar with space for all the events you will participate in during the holiday break from school or services.

  1. Note the last day of school
  2. Going to holiday services
  3. Visiting     Grandma     for a holiday treat
  4. Attending a religious service
  5. Shopping at __the tie store__ for a gift for ____Dad__.
  6. Inviting a friend _to decorate cookies_ for a special play date.
  7. Watching holiday movies

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Last Updated: June 8, 2020

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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