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A Holiday Survival Guide for Parents with Autistic Children

autistic children and holidays

The holiday season can be challenging for any parent: shopping for gifts, preparing a holiday meal, finalizing travel plans, and making time for family, all while the kids are home from school. For children on the autism spectrum and their families, these changes have the potential to trigger full-on meltdowns.

Children on the spectrum tend to thrive on consistency and routine, both of which can get tossed out the window when the holiday season arrives. Having spent the better part of the last decade working with children with autism and their families, I can assure you that while the holidays may present new challenges, there are strategies you can use to ensure that they go as smoothly as possible for you and your whole family.

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Create a schedule, and stick to it!

Since routines are important to kids on the autism spectrum, try to maintain as much consistency as possible. If your idea of a winter break involves making plans while on the go, you may find that your child has a very different opinion. That’s not to say relaxation can’t be a part of your vacation, but try your best to maintain a set daily routine. Keeping a consistent schedule of wakeups, bedtimes, and mealtimes will ensure your child’s days remain structured.

If you have any travel or special activities planned, keep a visual calendar accessible so your child knows when and where these will be happening. It’s also helpful to provide plenty of reminders to your child regarding any variations in schedule (“Remember, on Thursday we will be driving to see Grandma and Grandpa…”) to be sure he or she is primed for change.

Shop smart!

Shopping with a child on the spectrum can create its own set of specific challenges. Stores are a high-stimulation environment, especially around the holidays. Lights, music, decorations, and crowds can all be unpleasant, if not downright overwhelming for a child with any sort of sensory processing issues. Remember that children on the spectrum may perceive sound, light, and crowds differently than you do (imagine trying to take an algebra test in the middle of a disco dance party!).

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Some stores like Toys”R”Us offer “quiet shopping hours” for families of children with autism. If you must bring your child to the store, be prepared with snacks, headphones or noise-cancelling earphones, and a preferred toy or game to keep your youngster engaged while you shop.

Toys, toys, toys!

Holiday shopping can be a thrill, but the idea of buying gifts for others may not be an easy concept to explain to a child on the spectrum. Your child may see toys or food they want and exhibit some aggressive behaviors like screaming or crying in order to get access to them. While it may seem easiest to give in and get the item, buying children gifts after they exhibit these problem behaviors reinforces the idea that those behaviors are the way to get what they want. In which case, get ready for your kid to use the same method in the future.

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Instead, try to ignore such behaviors, and only provide reinforcement and attention when your child has quieted down. If meltdowns are a regular occurrence in your family, I recommend setting up a plan ahead of time, where your child will get access to a preferred toy, game, food, or activity after the shopping is done. Always remember the “first/then” rule: First you complete the nonpreferred activity, then you get what you want. This is known as the Premack principle, or more commonly, the “grandmother rule” (“First eat your dinner, then you get dessert”).

Surviving your extended family

Throughout my career of working with children with disabilities, one of the biggest routine challenges has been working with grandparents. They possess an unending love for their grandchildren, but don’t always understand complex behavioral strategies (“He’s crying, so I gave him candy. Now he isn’t crying, so that must have worked”).

If you have family members who have the best intentions but a lack of experience with your child, you have every right to approach them beforehand and explain your current behavioral plan for your child. Sometimes a quick phone call or email will suffice; other times you may need to speak to them in person. Explain the situation, tell them how you are working through these behaviors, and thank them for respecting your family’s plan. This is easier said than done, but it’s better to approach it prior to the challenging situation than trying to handle your child’s meltdown and your parents’ meltdown at the same time.

Travel with care

Nothing changes a child’s routine faster than travel plans. Long car rides, TSA security lines, or sitting on an airplane are all major deviations from a normal day. Again, planning is key. Remind your child about what will be happening throughout the experience, and if possible, use visuals or write a short story to represent the process. Role playing scenarios with your child may be helpful, and there are a number of video stories available online to model how to behave and what to expect while in an airport/airplane. Some airlines and airports even have a mock boarding procedure, where they allow families to come to the airport and practice boarding, sitting in your seat, and deboarding.

It’s also helpful to bring toys, games, snacks, comfortable clothing, headphones, and any other items that will keep your child engaged (and distracted) throughout the journey. If your child has loud vocalizations or other disruptive behaviors, you may want to bring some note cards to pass out to other passengers, letting them know he or she has autism and that you appreciate their patience. A little kindness goes a long way during the holidays, especially when you’re stuck on a plane together!

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Remember your ABCs!

The ABCs of behavior are antecedent, behavior, and consequence. Antecedents are anything that happens before a problem behavior occurs — anything that may trigger the behavior. Consequences are anything that happens after a behavior occurs. You know your child better than anyone, so it’s up to you to try to avoid potential triggers as best you can.

The consequences you provide may be reinforcing (encouraging the behavior to happen again) or punishing (discouraging the behavior from happening again). Please be aware that depending on why the child is exhibiting certain behaviors, it may be hard to determine how to respond. If a child is kicking you to get your attention, yelling for them to “STOP IT!” may work in the short term, but by providing the child attention in the form of a reprimand, you are actually reinforcing the idea that kicking an adult is a good way to gain their attention. Remember, we cannot change a child’s behavior, but we can change the environment around them. More importantly, we can change our behavior to ensure everyone in the family has a fun, successful holiday season.


Adam Soffrin is a Bay area-based educational consultant, working with schools and families to ensure children with disabilities receive inclusive, appropriate, and supportive educational services. Adam also chronicles his work as both a special education teacher and behavior analyst on his website.

Article resources
  • Homme, L. E., DeBaca, P. C., Devine, J. V., Steinhorst, R., & Rickert, E. J. (1963). Use of the Premack principle in controlling the behavior of nursery school children. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 6, 544. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1404418/
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