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5 Ways to Prepare Your Child with Autism for the Holiday Season

The holidays are often a difficult time for children with autism. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, many families will still gather with extended family members during the holiday season. For a child with autism, these gatherings of unfamiliar people, places, food, and noises can create a stressful environment that differs from their daily routine expectations. So, how do you prepare your child if you’re planning on visiting others during the holidays?

  1. Use social stories to prime your child

    A social story is simply a short “book” that describes what your child can anticipate in simple terms. An example of what you might include on each page could be:

    Page 1: We’re going to visit Grandma’s house on Thanksgiving!
    Here you might include a picture of Grandma or things your child may associate with Grandma’s house so your child can visualize the place they’ll be visiting.

    Page 2: Aunt Debbie and Uncle Terry will be there!
    Here, include a picture of the aunt and uncle so again, your child can visualize who they can anticipate seeing at Grandma’s house. Will there be new people they’ve never met? If so, let that be known so they aren’t caught off guard in the moment.

    Page 3: When we eat, we keep our hands to ourselves and use inside voices.
    You’ve probably guessed it… include a picture here that best represents this activity to your child.

    Page 4: When you’re finished eating you say, “all done!”

    Page 5: If you do a good job, you’ll get extra time to play outside!
    Every child is different. Make sure to include a reward that is a reinforcer to your child.

  2. Prepare to bring items/activities to occupy time

    Anticipate that there will be downtime, no matter where you go for the holidays. By bringing some of your child’s favorite items and activities, your child will have items that they’re familiar with and bring a sense of normalcy from their everyday routine. You may also consider picking up new novel items that will excite your child and keep them occupied. These don’t need to be big or expensive. Simple items from 99 Cents Only Stores, Target, or Walmart will do just fine.

  3. Factor in travel time

    While you may not be traveling as far this year, even a longer than average car ride could be difficult for your child. If you plan on driving longer than your child is used to, we recommend you:

    1. Plan for frequent stops and bathroom breaks. Leave your family plenty of time to reach your destination.
    2. Bring snacks for the ride, both familiar and new that your child may be excited to try.
    3. Download new apps or games on a mobile device.
    4. Pack additional activities that won’t make a mess in the car such as scratch art or books.
  4. Prepare ahead for mealtimes

    Mealtimes often present challenges for many families, particularly if your child is unfamiliar with the food options that will be available. If others are contributing various dishes for the holiday, consider bringing a dish that you are certain your child enjoys.

  5. Continue using visual supports and reinforcers

    If your child uses a visual support such as a visual schedule, a token board, or another reinforcement system, ensure that you continue to use this system while you’re outside of the home. For instance, if your child receives a reinforcement for successfully sitting for a certain amount of time during a meal at home, please be sure to implement the same reinforcement. You may also find yourself reinforcing your child more frequently given the extra distractors that your child may experience.

We hope you find one of these ideas useful to incorporate into your child’s holiday plans this season. If you have a suggestion of something different that’s worked for your family, tell us in the comments!


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