Celebrating the Holidays When You Love Someone With Autism

For someone who lives with autism, and the people who love him or her, the holidays can be delightful or dreadful.  There are changes of routine and sensory issues that can be hard to take.  Keeping to a routine, using visual helpers, offering choices, enjoying short and simple activities you do together, getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, and slowing down the hectic pace of the holidays are some of the ways you can make the holidays easier for you and the one you love with autism.  Here are some ways you can help someone with autism enjoy the holidays.

Holiday Visual Helpers

Visual helpers, like picture cards and schedules, help the person with autism organize their day, and understand activities have been completed and what is coming up next.  They are a great way to build competency by playing on a strength that tends to be strong in individuals with autism (visual processing, visual memory).

Here are some resources for free, printable visual helpers for the holidays…just laminate the cards, attach some velcro, and you’re ready to schedule!

Sensory-Friendly Holiday Activities

When you have a person with autism with you, you generally may want to select activities that (1) they will find engaging and (2) that you can duck out of quickly, in case of sensory over-stimulation or melt-downs.  A lot of free Christmas activities fit the bill, such as open-air or open-seating concerts, where you don’t have to stay for the whole event.  As a parent, I just think it’s nice to go to part of something and enjoy it, rather than force my child to sit through an entire event and hate it.  I have also found that his tolerance builds up over time, so I think this approach has worked well.

Here is an article reviewing several annual events and  Christmas Activities in the Washington, DC area that my son and I have enjoyed (please double-check the dates, which change from year to year).

Coping with Family and Related Holiday Issues

I don’t know a family with autism that hasn’t struggled in some way with family and friends issues, primarily with acceptance.  This can be very hard at Christmas, particularly in the early years.  I feel it does get better with time, and I have developed new traditions that have made Christmas special to me again.  It is true that when you have a child with autism, your world can become smaller, and you can feel lonely, but the people who you come to count on become that much more dear to you.

Cathy Knoll, MA, MT-BC has a wealth of suggestions for dealing with extended family, sensory issues, gifts, holiday meals, and other autism issues that are unique to the Christmas season. Check out her holiday-related FAQautism blog posts and podcast episodes here.

Altering Holiday Routines


For Christmas shopping, keep shopping excursions, short, targeted, and fun.  People with autism like things to be predictable.  Leisurely browsing for just the right gift doesn’t work; shopping with a list of three specific things to pick up from one store (during an off time) is a much better plan.

You know when your child is ready for a shopping trip.  Only go when you are both well-rested and in a good mood.  As with any excursion, it helps if you have in mind that if you have to cut things short and go home, that will be okay with you (so don’t leave things until the last minute).

Pick small and familiar, individual stores instead of huge shopping malls, or go on off-peak times, like Tuesday nights.  A crowded Saturday at the mall is not a good choice for a child with autism.  Neither is Wal-Mart.  Instead of going to Home Depot, you can go to a smaller hardware store.  Or try a museum gift shop for most of your gifts.  Keep it simple, and work in breaks for water and looking at elevators 🙂 and other special interests.

For activities like cookie baking or tree trimming, bring your child in for the last part of the process, if his or her attention tends to stray.  For example, frost and decorate together a dozen cookies you have pre-baked.  Or get a small tree and let them hang a few ornaments.

Church Services

Many churches offer alternative holiday services that are less crowded, or especially designed for children during the holidays.  For example, you can attend Vespers on the afternoon of Christmas Day instead of a late Christmas Eve mass.


Don’t overwhelm a child wih autism with loads of presents.  He or she may need to open presents over a period of time, even days, if it appears overwhelming.  In my house, my child receives three presents from Santa (just as the baby Jesus got three presents from the Wise Men), plus a stocking, and that works for him.  He gets more presents from relatives, but he literally takes weeks to open them all, because it is just too much stimulation for him.


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