Children who may be on the autism spectrum, have ADHD, or sensory issues may become overwhelmed by family gatherings and activities that come with the celebration of the “holiday season”.  The daily routine, so important to many of “our children”, is broken and the inability to “predict” what events will play out in a day can lead to behavior issues. Holiday decorations, lights, music, smells, foods, unfamiliar pets, loud conversations, cigarette smoke, perfume, hugs, and having strange people around are not exactly normal to their routine.  When you look at it all through “our child’s” eyes, it is understandable that they may struggle with the events of the holidays.

When preparing “our children” for the unpredictability of the holiday season, you want to start preparing them early and to practice for the new or out of the ordinary social experiences. I have been asked to provide parents with a brief overview of some of the therapy-based options, family-oriented ideas, and travel suggestions that you can implement when preparing your child for holiday festivities.  To follow is a partial list of ideas to consider and follow with fidelity that are sure to make this holiday season, a wonderful time for all.

Therapeutic Options

  • Social stories can help prepare your child for any new or uncomfortable event. Find stories (using the internet, via books, or from professionals) that cover how to act during holiday activities such as parties, being around unfamiliar people and large dinner gatherings, or write your own personalized social stories (be sure to keep ALL of the verbiage positive).  These stories allow your child to visualize the out of the ordinary situations and see them in a positive light.
  • Behavioral therapy can help your child deal with the behavior problems created by their perceptions and emotions.
  • Your child may benefit from therapeutic social skills groups.  Children are encouraged to practice social situations with their peers (through role playing and modeling) as they are being taught by professional therapists how to generalize solutions to perceptual changes.
  • It is not recommended to make medication changes during the holiday season, unless you are given specific directions to do so from your child’s providing physician. We want our children to remain as balanced as possible during the holiday season.

Family-based Ideas

  • Make sure your child’s favorite foods and activities are included in the celebrations.  Any time you can add in their special interests or some of their limited favorite foods, you will increase their comfort level and the enjoyment of everyone around.
  • A.L.T. Take precautions to minimize the chances that your child is (H) hungry, (A) angry, (L) lonely, or (T) tired. Any of these conditions by themselves is enough to heighten sensitivity and impair your child’s perception, which will impact everyone they come in contact with.
  • For those holidays where gift giving is the norm, inform gift givers of your child’s specific interests and dislikes. If possible, parents can help other gift givers make appropriate gift choices. Some of “our children” are sensory sensitive to the texture and/or sound of items, whereas others are emotionally sensitive and will “react” poorly if they perceive they are being given a gift appropriate for a much younger child. Receiving unwanted items may even lead to a meltdown.
  • Have an alternate plan for times where sensory issues become a problem. Anything from a quiet place to regroup or calm down, to planning to stay for only part of the time of the event, may be necessary.
  • Virtually any parent who has a child with “perceptual and or “social challenges” knows the value of having not only “Plan A” and “Plan B”, but, “Plan C, D, E, and F”.
  • Set your child up with a “buddy” during holiday festivities, the “buddy” can be a responsible sibling, cousin, or adult. Parents need to know the child is safe and hopefully enjoying themselves, while parents and others are entitled to a stress-free (or at least, reduced stress) holiday season.

Ideas for Traveling

  • Parents would be wise to research the location the family is going and the means of transportation being taken to get there. Fortunately, today, many facilities and organizations understand about the “special needs” some of our children have.
  • If your child has sensory issues such as sensitivity to noise, smell, touch, or lighting, see if you can reserve accommodation that are less stimulating to your child. Sunglasses, a hat, and earplugs may also be beneficial.
  • If you are traveling by plane, ship, or train, you can inform the agency of the needs your child may experience and provide them with a “heads-up” of potential issues. Once again having “Plan A, B, C, and D” in place should greatly increase the level of holiday enjoyment for everyone involved.
  • When sensory issues are involved, it can be worth bringing along your child’s normal bed sheets and pillows in case they find those in a hotel unpleasant. Any new clothes for the trip may need to washed several times if your child finds these ‘scratchy’ on the skin.
  • The use of electronics (with headphones) has proven to be helpful to help “our children” so they become distracted from overly stimulating situations and have a method to relax.
  • Some of our children are extremely comfortable on airplane’s, some are not. If your child has the potential to struggle with being confined on an airplane for hours, you may want to consider different options. You do have the option of boarding first, choosing special diets, and optimal seating. Service animals may also be an option for your family.

There are parent support groups and therapeutic service providers who can serve as valuable assets to having a wonderful holiday season. Don’t just leave this to chance, prepare and you will be rewarded.


Dr. Eric Nach, Ph.D., M.Ed., A.S.D. Certified Developmental and Behavioral Specialist

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