Navigating the Holidays with Children on the Spectrum

Sunday Nov. 19th, 2023

The holidays can be a stressful time.  For individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD) it can be a very confusing time.  While every individual is different one of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is the following: “insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day)” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). With all the changing routines (no school, holiday parties, decorations, new food, eating at a different time etc.) this can be overwhelming for those on the spectrum.  The following are recommendations on how to help individuals with autism during the holidays.  

Keep routines the same (as much as possible).  
o While it may not be possible to attend school during the holiday having the student wake up and eat at the same time would keep their routine similar.  
Limit sensory overload
o Some individuals demonstrate hypersensitivity toward sounds/lights or other stimulation.  Too much stimulation for these individuals can result in the individual becoming very upset often engaging in behaviors to get away from the stimulation.  This could be as simple as someone covering their ears or it could even be the person trying to leave or engaging in aggressive behavior.  
o Turning off the noise function on decorations or having the lights on steady instead of flickering can help.  
o Limiting the amount of decorations both inside and outside can help individuals not feel so overwhelmed.  
o Have a space that the individual can go to that is quite and calm.  
o While it might feel like it is helping staying with the individual and talking to them might be adding to the sensory input.  Stay if the person wants you to stay but remain quite until the person is calm and can talk to you.  
Limit the amount of activities that you do.  
o There are many different events during the holiday season.  Some individuals can get overwhelmed with too much stimulation (noise, people, activities etc).  By only going to a few holiday parties or activities this can help keep the individual from becoming overwhelmed.  
Decorate intentionally
o Some individuals who have difficulty with transitions may have a hard time with decorations especially if furniture is rearranged or removed to make space for the decorations like a Christmas tree.  Keeping the decorations minimal or only decorating a few rooms can help.  
o Setting a specific day for decorating and undecorating can help.  Telling the individual when the decorations are going to go up and when they are going to be taken down sets up a specific time.  
o Make an event for setting up decorations can help.  An example of this would be going out to get a Christmas tree and putting up the decorations then.  Another example would be on the day after thanksgiving we will turn on the Christmas music and decorate the house.
o As mentioned before limiting the amount of decorations will help by not creating a sensory overload for the individual.
Provide the same food options
o Some individuals extend their rigid patterns into food eating the same food every day.  The holidays are a time to eat and to eat different food that is not always available at other times of the year (like pumpkin spice everything).  While some individuals enjoy this it can be stressful for others.  Keep the same food options available.  If they want to try the new food great but having their preferred food gives them the structure of their routine.  
Talk about it
o Everyone does better when they know what is going to happen when and individuals with ASD are no different.  What take you or I one time to learn will take more repetitions before individuals with ASD will understand (they might even repeat it to you over and over)
Come up with a plan
o Even when you do everything you can sometimes things just don’t go as planned  Have a plan of action that the individual can do or say to you when things start getting too overwhelming for them.  This could be creating a quite space, asking to leave the area or asking for along time.

While this is not an exhaustive list it is important to remember that not everyone will respond to these recommendations in the same way.  Some individuals with autism might get upset when you talk to them about the changes but will do fine if the holiday decorations just appear.  Always ask what is best to help.  

If you know someone who might need extra support this holiday season or anytime throughout the year the staff at Spectrum Behavioral Services provides in home therapy to decrease problem behavior and increase desired behavior.  Please visit our website at


Tess Gelderloos, M.A., BCBA, LBA is the Owner, Provider and Clinical Director of ABA Services.