8 Tips To Help Kids with Autism Cope With Holiday Stress

Along with the holiday season comes bright lights, loud noises, large gatherings, and much excitement.  Routines are often disrupted to attend special events and winter vacation from school.  Home, school, and most places change in appearance with festive decorations.  Streets, stores, and neighborhoods are adorned with bright, colorful lights to celebrate this jubilant time of year.  Children who thrive on structure and routine may find all the change quite overwhelming.  Not to mention the sensory challenges that the holidays may bring.  

This post is about how to reduce holiday stress and meltdowns in children with autism, ADHD,  anxiety disorder, executive functioning disorder, and/or sensory processing issues.  Therapists and educators, please share this post with your parents!

For most, the holiday season is a joyful and memorable time of year.  It should be for neurodiverse kiddos as well.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or something else, stress comes along with all the cheer and excitement.  Knowing how to manage stress is key during the holiday season.  

Here are 8 tips to help you and your child have a more pleasurable holiday experience:

  1.  Pick your battles, don’t set too many behavioral expectations.  Limit the expectations and try to be flexible.  Decide on what is most important and leave it at that.  
  1. If your child is sensitive to visual sensory input, try not to overwhelm with too many holiday decorations and lights in the home.  Be mindful of this when decorating.  Involve your child in the process if possible.  Allowing your child to have some input in the decision-making process can be helpful.   Make gradual changes over time.
  1. Do not force your child to dress up or wear clothing that will cause discomfort when going to special events or for the holiday dinner.
  1. At special events and holiday dinners, make sure there will be food the child likes to eat.  If you have a picky eater, the holiday dinner is not the time to try to introduce new foods.  If having dinner at home, prepare foods that you know your child will eat.  If going to a family or friend’s house for dinner, bring the familiar and preferred food with you.  
  1. Make sure there is a pre-determined quiet place your child can take respite if he/she feels the need to.  If visiting with family or friends, it’s a good idea to identify the calm down area upon arrival.  Clear it with the host, and take your child there.  Explain to your child that this is where he/she can go if they need a break from all the excitement.  
  1. Bring a favorite toy or item.  Having a familiar, preferred item will bring comfort to your child under unsettling conditions.  Allow for the use of AirPods or headphones as this is an excellent way to filter out over-stimulating ambient noises.
  1.  Always provide a heads up before transitions.  For example, “we will be heading to Uncle’s house for our holiday dinner in 10 minutes.”
  1. Prepare your child by creating a social story that clearly defines the course of events, including behavioral expectations (where they will go if they need to take a break).  Include photos of family and or friends they will see.  You know your child best.  Think about what aspect or event of the holiday season your child struggled the most with last year.  Make sure to include this in your social story.  Or it may be necessary to write a social story just for a particular event or situation.  Need help creating a social story?  Here are a few resources that will help.  

These websites offer free social stories that you can customize to prepare your child for the holiday season:

Florida Autism Center


Fusion Autism Center


A Day In Our Shoes


Have you found a strategy or tip that really works for your child?  I’d love to hear about it!  Help other parents through your experiences.    Please share in the comments below. Your input is greatly appreciated.

Happy Holidays

The Fun Strokes blog is designed for educational and informational use only for teachers, therapists, and parents. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has delays, please consult an occupational therapist.

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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