Making the holidays manageable for kids on the spectrum

The holidays are supposed to be full of fun and relaxation – but to many kids on the spectrum (and their parents), they are just the opposite. Between the increased social engagements, the lack of familiar routine, and the sensory overload happening everywhere – the holidays can be really tough. And that’s not even counting gift giving which I wrote about last week. I’ve rounded up some of my best tips for a happy and hopefully less stressful holiday season.


  • Don’t over-schedule yourself – tempting though it is, one event per day is probably enough. Most kids have exhausted their coping skills after the first event and need time to recharge before heading out to another event.
  • Headphones are a huge help at blocking out sensory distractions. You may need to do some advance work with family or friends who think it’s rude for your child to wear headphones in public or at a gathering. Simply explain how they help your child and leave it at that.
  • Have a safe place where your child can go if overwhelmed. Use an inexpensive bathmat as the “safe spot” and bring it with you when visiting – I practice this with the kids for a few days or weeks before the first event. These adorable round spots from Ikea are great for “safe spots”. There are also more intricate patterns available if that is soothing to your child.
 Ikea Tvis mat
  • Bring along some toys / activities your child can use when overwhelmed. Even (or especially) if they will be getting new toys at the event, bring a toy or two that you *know* your child will enjoy playing with – just in case. The new toy may need batteries that aren’t included in order to work, or it may not be something your child is into. Having a backup will prevent frustration and upset for your child.
  • If the event is at your house and there will be other children present, work with your child in the days or weeks before the event to figure out which toys he is comfortable sharing and which ones need to be put away before the party. Ask him again on the day of the party if there is any toy he doesn’t want others to play with.
  • Make sure that your child still has somewhere to escape to at your house – try to leave her room untouched if at all possible, so that if she needs to escape, she can.
  • Role play potential situations that could come up at a party. One that takes many by surprise is what to do if the washroom is occupied. If you have multiple washrooms (or even better an ensuite one) designate one as the guest washroom and the other for family use. Some kids with autism have delayed signals that they need to use the bathroom so waiting in a line-up can lead to accidents.
  • Use a calendar or visual timetable to prepare for Christmas, for specific events, to highlight school days and home days, or the night when Nana is coming to sleep.
  • Set up a daily calendar using a white board to outline what will be happening each day. Visual schedule tools can also help.
  • Try using a visual schedule if you are celebrating the holidays on more than one day (e.g., Hanukah) to show when there will be parties/gifts and when there will not – otherwise the child may expect gifts every day.
  • Make sure you give plenty of advance warning for changes – “In 15 minutes, we are going to put on our coats and say good bye to Grandma” is a good cue before transitioning to another activity, repeat the warnings as needed so that your child isn’t surprised by the change of activity.
  • Be careful with “fun” traditions such as elf on the shelf. We may think it’s fun but for a child who is anxious about being watched, an elf that watches and reports back to Santa is highly stressful. (Same goes with some Christmas carols – the line in Santa Claus is coming to town “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows if you’re awake” can be very stressful for some children. Actually, the whole idea of a stranger coming into the home while they are sleeping can be very stressful for some children. If your child is showing signs of stress over the elf, it may be time to send it back to the North Pole or try an alternative tradition such as kindness elves.
  • Consider decorating gradually – so the house doesn’t transform overnight. One day you could put the Christmas tree in position, decorate it the next day, then put up other decorations even later (if at all).
  • On the decoration front, be aware of how your child reacts to different decorations. Flashing and noisy ones may upset some children. Motion activated ones (Like a Santa that says “Ho Ho Ho” as you walk by) can be very distressing to kids (and adults!) so those may have to either find a new home or be switched off until the child is ready.
  • Have “the talk” with your family members. If your child hates being hugged, and Great Aunt Sally is a hugger – you need to explain that to her. It may be uncomfortable, but you want both sides to have a good experience. Make them aware of your child’s self soothing behaviours and whether or not they should approach him if he’s in his “safe spot”. [If you’re part of the extended family of a child with autism, the best gift you could give the parents and the child is to listen to their cautions. They know what works and what won’t and a holiday is not the best time to suggest alternatives.]
  • Keep mealtimes as consistent as possible. (Also make sure your child eats). Offer to bring something you know your child will eat if she is a picky eater. You can also feed your child before an event if needed and provide them with a quiet activity to do while the meal is being served.
  • Model / practice buffet behaviour – washing hands before going to get food, not sticking hands in food / using utensils provided, what to do if you don’t like something, not going straight for the desserts – these are not common occurrences and your child may not know how to handle a buffet, so practice.
  • You may want to find a less busy place for your child to eat if they are easily distracted, the kids’ table is generally pandemonium, so see if there’s somewhere a little quieter where he could eat with maybe 1 or 2 helpful older cousins.
  • Don’t be surprised if your child doesn’t want to eat when everyone else is eating, then is ravenous once things are quieter. Set aside a plate for easy access later.
Try to make meals as stress free as possible.
Try to make meals as stress free as possible.
  • Avoid shopping at peak times, or for extended periods of time. Malls are full of sensory stimuli – the carols being played over the speakers, the voices of other shoppers, the bells some charities use to collect donations, the over the top window displays, the smells of the food court, the feelings of fabrics – it all adds up to one seriously overstimulating experience. If you can manage it, try only taking your child to smaller free standing stores, and do it when there isn’t a crowd.
  • Santa can be scary for kids. Some malls do a sensory sensitive Santa (try saying that 5 times fast), or open early on a weekend so sensory sensitive kids can visit Santa with fewer people around. If not, ask one of Santa’s helpers if perhaps your child could visit right at opening or closing when Santa tends to be less busy.
Photo Courtesy Lyall Cousins. Devonshire Mall Santa 2013
Photo Courtesy Lyall Cousins. Devonshire Mall Santa 2013
  • Or, see Santa at a smaller event such as a pancake breakfast or a company holiday party and skip the mall Santa altogether.


I hope these tips make the holiday season a little less stressful. If all else fails, remember that it’s about the spirit of the season and having fun with your family, not about everything being perfect. (Spoiler alert – it’s never perfect, which is what makes it awesome.)

By koalateagirl

Jenn Annis is a writer, editor, historian, special needs advocate, and tireless defender of the Oxford comma. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

1 comment

  1. Thanks for sharing so many great ideas Jenn! It’s a great reminder for parents of adult children on the spectrum as well. Headphones… check!

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