Bright lights. Elaborate decorations. Gifts! There’s so much to love about the holidays. But for someone with autism spectrum disorder, it can be the most stressful time of year.

“While the holidays are very exciting, they’re often a sharp detour from our normal schedules, which can be very unsettling for someone with autism,” says Stephanie Heppard, the high school teacher at The Springtime School. “They could feel confused, overstimulated, or anxious, which can lead to problem behaviors.”

To help your child more fully enjoy the holidays, Heppard suggests some different supports and tools:

Stick to their routine as much as possible. “A predictable routine is so important for people on the autism spectrum because it brings order and consistency to a world that often feels unorderly and inconsistent,” Heppard says.

Keep their favorite things within reach. Whether travelling to visit family or staying home, Heppard says enabling them to have access to the things they use every day, like a tablet, fidget toys, or headphones, will help foster a sense of familiarity and provide a reprieve when they’re feeling overwhelmed. That goes for food, too. Holiday dinner tables can be full of dishes we see only once a year.

Create a social story. Traditions are comforting. But getting a new one off the ground can be a daunting prospect. Creating a social story – outlining exactly what the new tradition will entail – should help put your child at ease, Heppard says.

“Make sure to include pictures so they can familiarize themselves with where they’ll be going or what they’ll be doing,” she says.

Another option is to use “first/then” language around the new tradition. For instance, if you’ve only ever baked sugar cookies for Christmas, and this year you want to try your hand at gingerbread cookies, say, “First we’ll bake some gingerbread cookies. Then we’ll make sugar cookies.” That way, they’ll understand the old tradition will remain intact.

Encourage their progress. Finally, try to remember, it’s not all stressful. If your child’s among family or friends they see often, encourage them to practice the social skills they’re developing in school, like having a conversation, sharing, and following directions for a new game.

What better gift could there be than watching them blossom right before your eyes?

Skip to content