Reducing Holiday Stress for Children with Autism

December 22, 2015

As the holiday season approaches, I can’t help but wonder what this means for the children with autism served at Grafton. Take a moment and think about what we like most about the holidays; the beautiful lights, holiday music playing in every store, special schedules at school or work, a break from the normal routine, shiny new presents and surprises under the tree, the excitement and anticipation for the big day ahead, and socializing and entertaining others.

Now let’s think about these moments from the perspective of a child with autism.  What if you are easily over stimulated by loud noises, flashy lights and new smells?  How about a completely different schedule, lots of surprises, meeting new people at strange social gathering that you don’t fully understand the importance of?  As a therapist, on a normal day, I would recommend that a child with autism would need to be prepared in advance for any variation in the environment or deviation from the normal routine.  If all of these items deviate from the norm, how would we expect for children with autism to respond or feel about the holidays?


At Grafton, we develop customized treatment plans, which build on our student’s strengths and structure an environment where individuals can succeed.  There are many strategies that we use every day that can be utilized during the holiday season so that everyone is able to enjoy the beauty of the season.  For example, using a visual schedule, understanding a first/then sequence and teaching alternate ways to express the need for a break are some strategies that can be replicated and oftentimes will decrease anxiety and consequently behaviors of concern that may arise when faced with unexpected circumstances and situations.

If you were to apply these strategies to your child with autism, what would it look like?  First, it is important to create a visual schedule outlining all the activities for the holiday, so the child will know what to expect and be prepared for the deviations from the normal schedule.  For the activities on that schedule where you feel, your child may have difficulties, set up a reward system with a specific set of goals.  Use the first/then sequence to engage your child in achieving the goals you collaboratively set for the outing, so they are rewarded after successfully completing a challenge that was difficult to them.  Ensure your child has an appropriate means to express the need to take a break or escape a challenging situation.  Whether that is an icon, a specific word or signal that the child can use to alert you that they need a quiet place, a preferred or comforting activity.

Here are a few questions to consider so that the holidays more manageable for clients:

  • Does your child actually know what that holiday season is?
  • Have you ever actually explained why the schedule and environment is changing?
  • Is it a good idea to wait for the holiday rush to do my shopping, or will that be over stimulating for my child in the store?
  • Given that children with autism don’t have a traditional view of social etiquette, will they react appropriately to receiving a bunch of presents they didn’t want or need, or should the family pool together and buy a few specific items that the child really likes or wants?
  • Should I decorate the house all in one day, or slowly change the environment several days at a time to make it a more gradual change that my child can cope with?
  • How can I structure the holiday to adhere to the normal routine for my child? How about waking up and opening presents at the same time we usually get up for school?
  • Did I prepare my visitors to understand why my child might say things such as “I didn’t ask for this” or be more interested in the shiny wrapping paper than the gift?
  • Does a busy or action packed holiday equate to what it means to be a “good” holiday?

These simple guided questions and strategies above can alleviate the anxiety associated with the holiday season and help clients and parents experience a stress free season.