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Easing Holiday Stress for Children with Autism

Easing Holiday Stress for Children with Autism 

TIPS FROM OUR family support team


The holidays can be a stressful time of year for anyone. Our senses can easily go into overload with all the new smells, sounds, textures and lighting that comes with the holidays.   Think pinecones, flashing lights, loud music and cooler weather, even hail nowadays. These new sensations can be difficult to avoid and the expectations alone can be daunting, thus preparation and strategizing is key to help ourselves or our loved ones feel more at ease.


Changes in routine and schedules can be challenging.  Children go from having a structured day at school and therapies, to winter vacation with the high probability that their therapy schedules have been changed or perhaps temporarily halted due to the holiday season. Letting your child know well in advance of any schedule changes can be especially helpful. Of course, as we enter flu season, we can never prepare for changes that occur due to illness. Perhaps have a backup plan of fun and sensory seeking activities that can be done if a provider must take a sick day or if the weather is unseasonably cold and dreary. Click here to check out this great list of social stories and holiday activities from The Autism Helper that can help you navigate the winter break. Discuss the holiday schedule with your providers in advance so that everyone can be aware of any changes and vacations. Keeping a family calendar that is easily visible to all can be a helpful reminder to keep track of schedules.


Whether you’re traveling across the state or country, traveling can be difficult on our bodies; from sitting in a car or crowded airplane for an extended period to having new accommodations. Remember to plan time to stretch or take a mental break. Having preferred and calming music along your travels can make the ride easier and fun.  Consider having reinforcers to hand out along your journey and make sure to give plenty of praise!

Staying at an unfamiliar location, such as a hotel or relative’s home, can be hard because your loved one may lose a sense of security and their “safe place.” If you’re staying at a hotel, make sure to discuss with the staff your family’s needs regarding safety. Perhaps you’ll be most comfortable on a more family friendly level of the hotel with easy access to the pool or maybe you would prefer not to be within clear site of the pool. Don’t hesitate to ask about security, even if that means you’ll just have an extra chair to put in front of the door. Perhaps consider bringing your own door chime and stop signs to place on exits.


Maybe you’re not traveling but having visitors instead! Prepare your child for the possibility that sleeping arrangements may be different. The child may have to share their room, allow a guest to sleep in their bedroom or the child themselves may need to change rooms entirely for the duration of the visit. It is important to give your child the opportunity to share any concerns that they may have about sharing their home. It is equally important to remind your guests of any needs your loved one may have, including house rules. I often remind my kids to close the bathroom door when we have guests and I remind the guests to ensure that they lock the bedroom and bathroom door when in use to avoid any potential mishaps.

Food & Gatherings

The holidays are a time often associated with special treats and meals that may involve large gatherings. If you have a picky eater or someone with sensitivities to food textures, make sure to have food on hand that they will enjoy, in addition to your special meal. We refer to it as Christmas Mac n’ Cheese in our house.  It sounds simple enough, but it can be a difficult thing to remember when preparing large meals. A gentle reminder to extended family members about your family’s dietary restrictions may be needed. Be prepared to bring your own food to events when necessary. At large gatherings make sure to analyze potential exits and “tag” an adult to keep an eye on loved ones to decrease the odds of elopement. As a reminder, if your loved one goes missing and has a disability, please contact 911 immediately and request that a Silver Alert be issued. Find out more about Silver Alerts here.

Gift Giving

There are those who love the anticipation of opening gifts and there are those who are the complete opposite, where the very idea of opening gifts in front of others is exhausting. There are those who can manage a smile and be gracious after opening the worst gift of the season and there are others who will cry, show their dismay or be brutally honest. If your child is the latter, have an open discussion with them before the gift giving begins. My child is happy to open a present but does not like to feel like he is on display in front of a crowd. As a family we noticed that our child had difficulty opening items that were gift wrapped and would become frustrated and uninterested quickly. We realized that he was happier and more excited to open gifts when the items were placed in a gift bag or soft gift sack that was sealed with a loose bow. 


Decorations equate to new and old, fun things to touch and explore. Consider placing fragile decorations in areas out of reach or on top of a sturdy surface. Have decorations available that are okay to touch, such as a pillows, stuffed animals, musical makers or books. If participating in large community events or holiday displays become overwhelming, consider packing up the family in the car with warm blankets and snacks and view the neighborhood lights at your own pace.

It’s important to remember, that even if this holiday or a particular event doesn’t go as planned, you can always, and should, try again next year. As Temple Grandin often advises, give your child a loving push towards new experiences. Exposure to new things is the only way to determine if that thing will become an interest, hobby or a non-preferred item or experience.   From our family to yours, we wish you a wonderful holiday season. 

AZA United's Family Support Team provides support and guidance for families facing any number of challenges as they navigate the Autism journey. This service is available at no charge to all members of the autism and developmental disability community. You may make a phone appointment that works with your schedule by visiting 

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