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Special Needs

Coping with Christmas: 9 Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday for Autism Families

Most people look forward to holiday breaks hoping to reenergize and relax.

For parents of kids with autism or special needs, it may feel quite the opposite.

Holidays can be chaotic. And I dare say, the Christmas holidays are the most chaotic ones.

Our kids thrive with routines, structure, and predictability. During Christmas time, we face the biggest changes of routines of the year. And that can turn the holidays into a very stressful time for all the family.


Christmas Time: A Huge Holiday Transition

Some kids with autism find small changes in their everyday routines extremely distressful.

If trying to change your pizza night from Friday to Saturday sounds like looking for trouble, imaging trying to cope with all the changes the Christmas holidays brings.                                               

Some of the routine changes that your kid may need to adjust to during the Christmas holidays are:

  • Different bedtime routines
  • Different everyday routines (no school / parents at home)
  • Unstructured and unpredictable days
  • Big family gatherings with a lot of people to interact with
  • Visiting other people’s homes (friends, relatives)
  • Different foods
  • Lots of noise (more people, fireworks, busy malls…)
  • An overload of gifts and treats
  • Traveling

9 Tips to Help Kids with Autism Survive Christmas

We have been perfecting our approach to holiday seasons, and these are some of the things that work for us and could possibly help you too.

  1. Prepare in advance.
    Start talking about the interesting things that will be happening during the holiday (you may use social stories- see other resources below)
  2. Create a new holiday routine so that your kid can enjoy some predictability.
  3. Plan activities and events in a Christmas calendar
    Free Christmas Calendar
  4. Use Visual Schedules (great for toddlers too)
    During school breaks, I often use a whiteboard to take my son through the activities that we will do during the day. I break it into short activities and mix not-too-exciting stuff with activities he loves.
    I also use our calming cards (not just for holidays but all year round).
  5. Prepare for Big Gatherings
    • Explain to your child how these gatherings may affect him/her
      • Lots of noise
      • More people in the house
      • People trying to talk to him/her
      • Less structure
    • Make a plan for each contingency
      • Headphones to mask loud noises
      • Explore how your child feels about interacting with the visitors
      • Explain how the visit will develop (with visuals if possible)
    • Plan exit strategies or calming breaks
      If you are planning big family gatherings, prepare some quiet space where your kid can retreat if he/she feels overwhelmed.
      If you are visiting friends or family, plan for short visits, and leave while you can still enjoy success.
    • Energy Accounting Technique.
      Even if your kid manages to cope with big gatherings, it may still be very draining.
      The Energy Accounting is based around planning activities that will “replenish” our energy after those activities that may cause “depletion”. 
      You may read more about it in my post about Anxiety and Autism.
      You could tell your kid “I know lunch at Auntie´s is really difficult for you. How about playing computer games for an hour, as soon as we come back from Auntie´s?” 
  6. Not Without My Earmuffs
    Christmas holidays are especially noisy. Fireworks, Christmas crackers, Christmas Carols, loud family reunions, busy malls. And some of our kids are extremely sensitive to noises. So, don´t leave the house without their noise-canceling headphones.
  7. Be Extra Vigilant. If your kid is at risk of wandering behaviors, the risk may be higher during the holidays.
    Holidays are an especially tricky time. Big family reunions. It is easy to lose track of what your kid is doing. You think your husband was keeping an eye on her, he thought it was somebody else. 
    Always, always, be clear on who is the designated person to monitor your kid. If you have a “runner” it just takes a few seconds for her to wander off. 
    You may also be on holiday away from home and the set up won´t be “wanderer-proof”. So, as I said, be extra-vigilant.
    If you feel your kid is at risk of elopement, you may find interesting information in these posts:

  8. During very busy times, plan for one on one attention
    One of the stressors I have identified in our Christmas holidays is that I am busy. Our son craves my undivided attention, but the holidays are hectic (preparing luggage, meeting friends and relatives, decorating the house, preparing special meals, just to mention a few)That translates into less attention. And my kid quickly resents it.
    One trick that I apply when I’m packing for our Christmas trip (meltdown guaranteed time) is ensuring I schedule undivided attention.I use a “non-contingent attention program” (meaning attention without any special reason) giving him lots of attention with an interval reminder on my watch. I go about my packing, but every few minutes I go to him and interact. That removes the need to act up looking for a bit of Mommy time.
  9. Special Needs & Air Travel
    Christmas is also the time some families choose for a family trip.
    If you are going on a long trip, I recommend you read “A Survivor’s Guide to Traveling with Kids“.
    It’s packed with tips that will ensure stress-free trips, lots of them specifically for kids with autism.

I hope these tips help you navigate next Christmas holidays with your kid with autism.

Other Interesting Christmas Articles

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tips for a stress free holiday for kids with autism

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