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How to Prepare Your Child with Autism for the Holidays

When you think about the holidays, you may have happy memories of your family coming together, and spending quality time. For many children with autism, however, the holidays evoke feelings of anxiety associated with noises, people, and events that are unfamiliar and frightening.

Given that the holidays can be stressful for parents and kids with special needs alike, here are some tips to prepare:

  1. Plan in advance: Create a plan for each event, whether it is a big family dinner for Thanksgiving, or a quiet brunch with your mom. Make lists for meals, snacks, activities, and things to do. For tasks, assign one or more family members to each task and identify a time when this will happen. Don’t forget to also plan for some quiet time and create places in your home where your child with autism can have a moment away from the commotion. Remember, your child will pick up on your stress levels, so try not to over-stretch yourself.
  2. Prepare for traveling: Traveling for the holidays can be rough sometimes. Whether you are boarding an airplane or going on a road trip, it’s important to be prepared. Pack snacks, movies, medications, extra clothes, and any items that are part of the routine at home. Making a list of these items well in advance can be helpful. 
  3. Develop structure: Your holiday event can seem chaotic and disorganized. Yet, it will be important to build structure into the day. Emphasize activities that will occur regularly, such as meal times, down time, and bedtime. Use visual aides and stories such as count-downs, calendars, and daily schedules. These are helpful for boosting organization and helping your child with autism know what to expect. Don’t forget to remind your child that some plans may change, and give suggestions on how to handle his emotions.
  4. Manage meltdowns: You know what will trigger your child with special needs and so be aware of the early warning signs that a meltdown may be coming. Find a number of ways to handle the situation before it gets bad with things that calm your child. You can also let family members know about certain methods they can use when your child starts to feel upset. This includes having an exit plan when out in public or at family gatherings.
  5. Make time: It’s easy to get overloaded with holiday preparations at this time of year, so plan regular activities to make some special time for your child with autism. Even ten minutes of undivided attention makes a difference during the day. Let your child take the lead, tune into their world, and see it through their eyes.
  6. Communicate expectations: Family pow-pows and “check-in’s” will be important to conduct before and during big holiday events. Also, review behaviors that will result in consequences, what those consequences are, and what would warrant ending the event early.
  7. Be flexible: Traditions are important, but sometimes you need to modify your expectations so your entire family can enjoy the holidays. Review the events as they are expected to occur, the people that may be present, and the behavioral expectations. But if things just don’t work out, you must be able to call it a day and give your child some space to relax.
  8. Educate family: Help family members who may not see your child with special needs on a regular basis understand some of your family’s challenges. Let them know what you expect to be difficult such as loud noises, new people, and unfamiliar food. Tell them about your child’s specific needs, and gently but firmly inform them what your plans are. Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone.
  9. Get help: Locate members of your family who might be willing to help you during the event. Your family may not know how they can help unless you tell them. They can organize a group activity, art project, or game, or assist you during a meltdown, providing calming one-on-one time for your child, or by taking control of preparing food while you are attending to your child.

If you feel overwhelmed and you need help, please contact us.
American Advocacy group is on the front lines every day, making positive change happen for people diagnosed with Autism, Down syndrome and a range of diagnoses across the continuum. As a leading advocate for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, and the premier provider of the support and services people want and need, we understand the system and know how to take action in regard to your best interests.
Dial (877) 762-0702 or email us at

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