Navigating Holiday Gatherings With An Autistic Child


The holiday season is a time for joy, family gatherings, and celebrations. However, for parents of autistic children, it can also be a period of heightened stress and anxiety. The disruption of routines, sensory overload, and social expectations can make holiday gatherings challenging. But with some thoughtful planning and strategies, you can ensure that your autistic child enjoys the festivities and feels included in the celebrations.

Maintain A Consistent Schedule

Autistic children often thrive on routine and predictability. During the holidays, try to maintain a consistent schedule as much as possible. This means keeping regular meal times and bedtime routines intact. Planning activities and events around your child’s schedule can help reduce anxiety and make the holiday season more manageable.

Prepare Your Child In Advance

Change can be challenging for children, especially for autistic children. Before attending holiday gatherings or special events, take the time to prepare your child. Use social stories, visual schedules, or simple explanations to help them understand what to expect. Discuss any changes in routines, the people they will meet, and the activities they will engage in. This proactive approach can help reduce anxiety and make transitions smoother. You can download a free story about attending a Thanksgiving gathering here.

Communicate With Family And Friends

Open and honest communication with family and friends is crucial. Let them know about your child’s needs, sensitivities, and preferences. Educate them on how to interact with your child and how to be patient and understanding. Encourage family and friends to be flexible and considerate during gatherings to create a positive experience for your child. Providing them with information about autism can help foster understanding and support. Download this handout to help educate and prepare friends and family ahead of time.

Bring Comfort Items

Allowing autistic children to bring their comfort items, such as toys, objects, or a tablet/iPad, to holiday gatherings can be a crucial strategy for promoting their well-being and inclusion in the festivities. These items serve as coping mechanisms and sources of familiarity that can help the child manage the sensory overload and social challenges that often accompany such gatherings.

Toys or objects that the child finds comforting can provide a sense of security and grounding, helping them stay engaged and regulated during the event. These items can serve as a form of self-soothing and offer a means of distraction when the child becomes overwhelmed or anxious.

Use A Portable Visual Schedule

Using a visual schedule during the holidays can help provide structure, reduce anxiety, and increase predictability for children. Create a visual schedule that outlines the different holiday activities and events that will take place. Display the schedule in a prominent place so that everyone in the family can see and understand what is happening. Depending on your child’s age and abilities, involve them in creating the visual schedule to make them feel more engaged and empowered.

Bring Preferred Food

It is a good idea to bring your child’s preferred food to a holiday gathering. Autistic children often experience sensory sensitivities and a strong attachment to specific foods, textures, or flavors. By providing the child with their preferred food, parents can ensure that their child has a source of comfort and familiarity amidst the chaos of the event. This not only helps the child feel more at ease but also reduces the stress and anxiety experienced by both the child and their parents. It promotes inclusivity and understanding among family and friends, fostering a more enjoyable and relaxed atmosphere for everyone involved.

Have A Plan B

Having a Plan B for an autistic child during holiday gatherings is essential. Autism is characterized by a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli and a preference for routine and predictability. Holiday gatherings often disrupt these routines with unfamiliar settings, loud noises, bright lights, and social interactions that can be overwhelming for autistic individuals. Having a Plan B allows parents to provide their child with a safe and quiet space where they can retreat when they become overwhelmed or overstimulated. This proactive approach can help prevent meltdowns and ensure the child’s well-being while still participating in holiday gatherings.

With the right strategies and preparations, you can make holiday gatherings a more enjoyable experience for your autistic child. Prioritizing their needs and comfort, maintaining routines, and fostering understanding among family and friends can create a positive and inclusive environment for everyone. This holiday season, create lasting memories with your family while ensuring that your child feels supported and included in the celebrations.

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a photo showing several visual supports for young children with autism

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