Holiday Survival Guide for Children with Autism | Organization for Autism Research

News & Events

Note to readers: In each issue of The OARacle, we provide a helpful resource on a topic of interest within the autism community. This month’s article focuses on tips for parents on helping their children through the stress on the holidays. Special thanks to Liane Holliday Willey, a woman with Asperger Syndrome who is also a mother, wife and author of several books on Asperger Syndrome, for her contribution.

Few events appeal to the romantic in me more than the holiday season. With little effort I can set my imagination free to fancy sumptuous dinners shared with old and new friends, guilt-free shopping excursions, and quiet moments reflecting on the reason for the season. Of course I’m only dreaming.

Truth be told, facing the holiday season is a bit analogous to having a root canal! My stomach lurches, my serenity goes on strike, and every one of my senses shriek. And trust me, this is progress! I’m now an adult – a wife and mother, well beyond my most challenging Asperger years. I look at my young Aspie friends and my palms sweat at the thought of what they will face over the coming weeks, unless of course, I come up with a way for us to enjoy and celebrate the season. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!

After reflecting on the rush and clamor of the holiday season, it occurred to me that there are three basic problem areas that cause the most difficulty for many of us with Asperger Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders. It seems sensory overload, disruptions to routines, and social demands are the “Big Three” that continually sabotage our holidays. So, putting pen to paper, I designed the following plan which I am confident will help us cope better than we ever have before.


One: Mitigate Sensory Overload

Those seasonal sensory stressors! Among them are classrooms and public areas laden with loud music, busy crowds and long lines, twitching lights and decorations, heavy smells and a myriad of taste treats. Parents can make a conscious effort to reduce sensory commotion by:
Asking restaurant personnel to seat their family in a remote corner.

  • Asking their child’s teachers to plan for, and then provide, extra quiet-time opportunities.
  • Finding out when shopping malls are least busy, and shopping during those times.
  • Keeping a sensory overload emergency kit with them at all times (possible contents – sunglasses, ear plugs, squeeze ball, aromatherapy lotion and anything that might help avert sensory overload).

When children with ASD feel overwhelmed, they should learn to use an agreed upon “I need help” code word with a responsible adult. The adult will then provide a means of helping the child de-stress by:

  • Going to a quiet room to relax with his/her “security blanket” or favorite stim.
  • Having a deep pressure massage.
  • Listening to a few minutes of his/her favorite music.
  • Watching his/her favorite video.

Don’t forget about home stressors too. Parents can do the following to avoid problems:

  • Shop with their child for holiday clothing, avoiding unnecessary ruffles and lace that scratch, tight waists that bind, or accessories that will drive both of them crazy.
  • Make a joint decision on holiday plans together so there aren’t last-minute scheduling surprises.
  • Take your time decorating the house so that the change is gradual and things aren’t rushed.
  • Given a choice, opt for simplicity whenever possible.
  • Create your own traditions and rituals that your family can look forward to from year to year.


Two: Maintain Routines and Order

Amid the clatter and chaos, children with ASD need their oasis – a sense of order to get them through the madness. The following will help parents AND children maintain their equilibrium:

Avoid travel away from home during the holidays, especially extended travel to family members who live far away. Save those trips for less stressful occasions.

  • Maintain as much of your normal household routine and environment as possible.
  • Make a concerted effort to go to bed and get up at the same hour each day
  • Do not let your child’s bedroom (his/her refuge) become the guest bedroom for out-of-town visitors.
  • Avoid cancellation of regularly scheduled activities such as music or sports practices.


Three: Prepare for Seasonal Social Situations

The social demands of the holiday season are like no other! From our AS perspective, you need the social flexibility of a human pretzel to travel the maze of social challenges. Hopefully, the following plan will make our kids feel more comfortable at social gatherings.

  • Write social scripts for how your child will be expected to behave at various holiday related functions, and then role play the behaviors until they run smoothly.
  • Outline how to act while shopping, visiting friends, and receiving gifts, and incorporate “think it, but don’t say it” strategies, and the “I need help” code word.
  • Agree on the tasks your child can be in charge of. For example, decide whether he/she wants to be the official disc jockey in charge of selecting and playing special holiday music or be the official holiday mail handler whose job will include posting and organizing the seasonal mail, or something else that she chooses to do. Agree that if the child becomes overwhelmed by the task, he/she can opt to relinquish it at any time.
  • Write social stories that include such things as the realities of holiday stress, how busy the shopping malls will be, the funny holiday characters they might see in public, and the most likely changes in the normal school routine.

During the holidays, I have vowed that I will join our whole family in embracing the festivities with peace and joy and awe-inspiring wonder. I know that there are no absolutes, and that what works one day, may have little effect the next, but I’ve taken that first and most important step. This year, I have a plan!


Other Holiday Hints
  • Keep your child’s needs in mind – they may need to be protected from the busiest part of the holidays.
  • For gift exchanges, provide a list of presents your child will be most likely to accept with gracious appreciation. To avoid disaster, you might elect to have a substitute toy with you, just in case!
  • Be prepared to answer countless questions. Use this time as an opportunity to guide your child to a deeper understanding of your faith.
  • Collect a list of all the possible symbols of the traditions you will celebrate and directly discuss each and every one.
  • Consider adopting a philosophy of ones – attend only one special event, purchase only one new outfit, entertain only one time in the home, and shop only once. If nothing else, you’ll save a bundle of money.
  • Be creative! Use every means at your disposal, every scheme you have ever found successful, and every trick you can invent to help both your family and your child celebrate the season.

Liane Holliday Willey, Ed.D., is an internationally-known speaker and writer on Asperger Syndrome and a researcher who specializes in the fields of psycholinguistics and learning style differences. She is the author of Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome and Asperger Syndrome in the Family: Redefining Normal as well as the editor of Asperger Syndrome in the Adolescent Years: Living with the Ups, the Downs and Things in Between. For more information about her, please visit her website.

Related Posts

Two siblings sit on the floor in front of a TV. One sibling has their arm around the other.

The Same but Different

The word “autistic” has always been stigmatized, its meaning is eclipsed by ideas of screaming children and socially unacceptable behaviors. But autism affects every person...

Read More

Stay Informed. Sign up for updates

    You'll receive periodic updates and articles from Organization for Autism Research.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Donate to OAR