Joyful Holidays with Autistic Children

June 5, 2024
Dr. Andrea Davis

Holiday cheer, holiday blues, holiday stress – all three can be a part of the “most wonderful time of the year!” For many, the holiday season brings about a sense of nostalgia and fond memories of our own childhood, so it’s only natural to want to re-create these joyful moments as we get older. When we foster these family traditions and cultural rituals, it helps keep us grounded throughout the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

For others, however, the holidays are not so easy to navigate and might even contribute to the holiday blues. When our bodies are placed under extended strain, it can exhaust our stress hormone response systems and result in a low mood, called dysphoria, or even trigger a bout of depression. What’s more, grief can resurface during the holidays when gatherings and empty seats or place settings serve as a reminder of loved ones who are no longer with us. All these emotions become amplified when we fall into the trap of comparing our current reality with cultural or personal expectations of what the holidays “should” look like.

Given that October 31 through December 31 is the most wonderfully BUSIEST time of the year, it is also the main reason our culture experiences an uptick in stress. From the scheduling demands placed on parents to dealing with rivaling relatives, the overload of the holiday season can take a toll on our mental health.

For autistic children, the unpredictability of schedules coupled with small — but meaningful — disappointments from unmet expectations can prove to be particularly dysregulating. Below are six practical ideas you can try out to see if they help your child and family handle all the stressors better.


Tips to reduce holiday stress and set the stage for joyful holidays with our families:


1.     Prioritize Connection. The most meaningful moments will be emotionally bonding moments with loved ones. Make a family tradition now of scheduling in your calendar 20 minutes of 1:1 “special time” with each child or teen each day. Invite the relatives to do the same! Special time means playing what the child wants to play, letting yourself be silly, and tuning in to how your child feels. Make memories together – these will be your sweetest holiday treats.


2.     Simplify the Schedule. Cut in half the holiday activities and visits you think you might be able to squeeze in. Set firm boundaries around the #1 priority of family time to make space for rest, fun, spontaneity, and magic.


3.     Post the Schedule. Even before reading or comprehending a calendar, most kids feel calmed at school AND at home just knowing there is a simple plan they can scan in a familiar spot. Just knowing where to look for what is coming up helps a lot. Get your kids to help decorate or illustrate the schedule so they feel invested in the scheduling process. Be selective in your decorating materials: stickers, sparkle glue, or feathers might work better than a black sharpie for this!


4.     Plan for your Child’s Sensory Needs and Motor Needs. If visits to friends and family are involved this holiday, pack your child’s favorite or new sensory stimulating (up-regulating) or sensory calming (down-regulating) activities. Carve out extra time for significant and regular opportunities to climb, stretch, run, push, hang, roll, spin – and try to do most of this together (see Tip #1!). Just as you would prep snacks and a drink for a hike, packing sensory-motor items and planning for your child’s sensory-motor schedule needs will contribute to a much more successful and peaceful holiday.


5.     Lower the Expectations for your Child and for Yourself. Many autistic children are sensitive to the extra stimuli experienced around the holidays: heightened emotional arousal, loud noises, increased visual stimulation, etc. This means their emotional developmental capacities might be challenged and more meltdowns might occur. To help ensure that your own impatience or irritability don’t take over, plan for the competing time demands that are bound to happen around the holidays. Leave room in your heart and your family schedule for disruptions, extra time to comfort or calm, and time for yourself to recover your Zen state (or just your minimally functional state)!


6.     Share the Secret Fun of Giving. Don’t “do it all” for your family. No matter how young your child may be in years or developmental capacities, plan now to include them in simple gift making, holiday decorating, and GIVING to others. Younger ones can help add sprinkles to cookies, wrap, and carry the treats to an important person. Older kids and teens can use your support for planning the shopping/crafting steps to make a surprise gift for someone they love.


Based upon Stanley Greenspan’s social-emotional developmental ladder we know that these “giving gestures” can pave the way to the highest level: altruism and care for the world around us. By doing this extra planning to scaffold our children’s current giving capacities, everyone can share in the holiday joy of thinking of someone else and making someone happy.

-- Andrea Davis, Ph.D.,    Licensed Psychologist and SVP of Clinical Operations at PositiveDevelopment   Co-Author of Floortime Strategies for Promoting Growth in Childrenand Teens: A    User’s Guide to the DIR Model

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