November 30, 2016

Navigating the Holiday Season: Tips for Parents and Caregivers

WV ATC's Dr. Catherine Goffreda Bailey provides the following tips and recommendations:

Although the holiday season can be a time of joyful memories, comforting traditions, and family reconnection, the inevitable stressors of the season sometimes overshadow these positives. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are especially susceptible to becoming overstimulated by the sensory overload and increased social engagements of the season. Providing early cues of what to expect and practicing moderation are key to enjoying a low-stress holiday season. With mindful planning and understanding of the individual’s needs, the holidays can be significantly more relaxed and enjoyable for everyone.

General Holiday Considerations

§  Family Routines – To greatest extent possible, maintaining a consistent, predictable schedule throughout the holiday season and school breaks will help to minimize disruptions to the familiar routine.

§  Sensory Needs – Parents and caregivers often know the individual’s sensory needs and triggers best. Be mindful that the individual’s tolerance for sensory intake may remain unchanged during the holiday season. For example, blinking lights, musical decorations, or strong-smelling candles could be highly aversive (or even physically painful) to some individuals.

§  Involving Siblings – When developmentally appropriate, siblings could benefit from a relaxed, positive conversation about the individual’s unique sensory, social, and communication needs. It also may be helpful to discuss the family’s strategies for supporting the individual during potentially stressful activities.

§  Holiday Shopping – Crowded, noisy stores in the weeks before the holidays are overstimulating for everyone, especially individuals with ASD. Making a list of items in advance can help to keep trips as brief and organized as possible.

§  Giving Back – The holiday season is an impeccable time for teaching kindness and goodwill. Encourage the individual to help with donating toys, making meals for others, or volunteering for a charitable organization as a family.

Preparing for Special Events

§  Social Stories – Reading a social story together before new events or family gatherings can help the individual know what to expect. If possible, include photos of the people and places he or she will be visiting. The individual may enjoy helping you draw a picture of the event. (Note: See below for examples of holiday social stories).

§  Holiday Calendar – Posting a family calendar of holiday activities in a visible location may also be helpful. The calendar could simply list general events, or be very specific regarding holiday activities (e.g., putting up decorations, shopping for gifts, family movie night, etc.)

§  Fine Motor Skills – Individuals with fine motor skill difficulties could benefit from practicing unwrapping gifts with small, fun items in a “game” format in advance. Consider using colored bubble wrap as a sensory-friendly alternative to wrapping paper.

§  Practice Social Behaviors – Some individuals may benefit from role-playing holiday social behaviors, such as greeting family members or reacting to unwanted gifts. However, recognize that physical affection (e.g., hugging and kissing relatives) should be at the individual’s comfort level and discretion. Explaining this to family members in advance may help alleviate potentially awkward situations or hurt feelings.

During Holiday Events

§  Safe Space – Identifying a quiet room or location in advance during the event for the individual to decompress may be helpful. Packing a small bag some of his or her favorite items can further help to foster comfort with the location.

§  Predictability – Let the individual know in advance where you are going, who will be there, what activities will take place, and when you will arrive and leave.

§  Be Proactive – Recognizing your child’s early signs of anxiety can help to intervene early, before a potential challenge occur. Utilize positive behavior support strategies to the individual adjust to changes.

Ultimately, many parents and caregivers pressure themselves to make every aspect of the holiday season unrealistically perfect. Sometimes the most memorable events serendipitously occur when things don’t go quite as planned. Don’t be afraid to scale back, or even start a new family tradition to replace one that no longer fits your family’s needs. Finally, taking the time to restore your own energy levels and peace of mind during the holiday season ultimately benefits everyone. Wishing you a joyful, memorable holiday season from the West Virginia Autism Training Center!

Free Printable Holiday Social Stories:

Thanksgiving #2:

Visiting Family at Christmas:

Visiting Family at Christmas (Adolescents/Adults):

What to Expect at Christmas:


Going to Visit Santa:

Receiving Presents: