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Go Ask Mom

Autism Society: Prepare now for peaceful holidays

Posted December 17, 2013

This can be a busy, hard time of year for anybody. But the Autism Society of North Carolina says it can be particularly challenging for those with autism and the families and friends who love them.

"The changes in routine, chaos of lights and sound, and social obligations can make life anything but joyful," says a post on the nonprofit's website.

The society shared some tips aimed at making everyone's holidays a little more peaceful. Many are great tips even for families who don't include somebody with autism. 

  • Mark holiday events on a calendar or use a paper chain to indicate the number of days to an event. (Keep in mind that too much notice causes anxiety for some folks.)
  • Use a visual schedule to sequence events.
  • Provide a way to indicate a change in schedule.
  • Consider using a timer (or tangible number of objects) to indicate the end of an event.
  • Write a social story to share the details of an upcoming event.
  • If visiting a new place or people, consider sharing photos of these places and people prior to the event.
  • Keep routines as typical as possible.
  • Designate a “quiet space” in advance. Share with the child where they can go when it is time for a scheduled break and/or when they feel they need a break.
  • Plan some sensory activities/calming activities during the day.
  • Have a “bag of tricks” ready at all times.
  • Share with family members the special interests of the child prior to your visit
  • Think sensory and adjust accordingly! Typical holiday sights, sounds, smells and experiences may trouble some.
    Sights: Blinking lights, multicolored lights, crowds of people, people wanting eye contact, furniture in a different location, and decorations
    Sounds: Loud sounds, multiple people talking at once, bells ringing, musical toys and ornaments, unexpected noises, music, and caroling
    Tastes: May be picky eaters, may not appreciate new holiday foods, may not know when they are hungry or full
    Smells: Holiday aromas such as pine and cinnamon, baked goods, and foods
    Touch: Hugs, kisses, people crowded into small spaces, the texture of certain clothing, and sitting with Santa

The society encourages parents (and this is a great reminder for all of us) to be realistic. If a child usually sits at the dinner table for just five minutes to eat, it's unrealistic to expect her to sit for 10 to 60 minutes for a holiday meal, the nonprofit writes. And if a child avoids hugging people, it's unlikely they'll want hugs from family members. And kids with autism might not be able to express gratitude for gifts as others expect, the group says. 

"Help others [and] be realistic by sharing your suggestions on what they can do to make the visit easier," the group writes. Easy ideas: put way breakable objects; keep lights and music on low settings; and put foods your child can't eat out of sight.

If your family needs support, the Autism Society provides all kinds of resources. Click here to find the nearest Autism Resource Specialist. Click here to learn more about chapters and support groups.


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  • dmarcottefreelance Dec 19, 2013

    As a mother of a child on the spectrum I would like to add one additional idea when going to a gathering where food will be served bring a 'bag lunch' with your child's preferred foods. This will keep them from getting hungry and be more familiar to them.

    I would also like to mention a great website for families impacted by autism, is designed to help families find the treatments, therapists and services they need in the local area. It also has a lot of links to online support through links to organizations, forums and other references.

  • shall6 Dec 18, 2013

    My pleasure!


  • kyliesmom Dec 18, 2013

    As the mom of a newly diagnosed autistic 3 year old little girl, I greatly appreciate you sharing the awesome information you have on the topic lately!