child holding up heart made of puzzle pieces to represent autism spectrum disorder

Make the Season Bright for Children on the Autism Spectrum

The holidays represent a time of decorations and festivities. Smells like baked goods, hot beverages, and trees tickle our senses. Often, holidays invoke a range of emotions. For many, the holidays are a time to celebrate and spend extra time with loved ones.

Meanwhile, others may find them to be an emotional time that reminds us of the people we’ve lost. However, for an autistic child, the holidays can be a time of sensory overload. As a parent, your goal is to bring joy to your kids and the holidays are a great time to do so. Here are some tips and activities to help make the holidays more exciting for an autistic child.

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Decorating the Tree

Decorations and changes in aesthetics can cause some discomfort in a child on the spectrum. First and foremost, experts recommend speaking with an autistic child about the upcoming festivities. Tell them about all the exciting decorations and describe the changes your home, neighborhood, or town may undergo. If possible, show them pictures of how the houses looked during the past holidays.

This will allow them to feel more prepared for the upcoming changes. In place of a real Christmas tree full of decorations and lights, try instead a DIY felt Christmas tree. It won’t take up a large amount of space, or touch on any of the other sensory effects such as smell or bright lights. You can find instructions on how to make your own from Might Moms.

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Image Credit: Arkon Beacon Journal

Changes in Public Settings and Family Gatherings

Parents with an autistic child know that even a simple family gathering or a trip to the grocery store can spark a major wave of emotions. Large crowds and unfamiliar noises cause a range of responses from flailing bodies to inconsolable tears. These simple gatherings can often make an autistic child feel overwhelmed or out of sorts. Prepare your child with stories or visuals. Plan ahead and allow for longer travel times to accommodate big feelings that may arise.

Experts suggest finding a quiet space in the home where the party is had. Create a calming quiet space for your child to color or read a book. Additionally, hosting the party in your own home can make your child feel more in their element. Subsequently, they may feel more comfortable.

As much as possible, keep your normal routine or create your own holiday traditions so that your child feels part of the fun, without feeling too out of place or as though things are out of the ordinary. If you’re going to a friend or family holiday party, you may want to have a comfort item on hand. For example, you may want a favorite blanket or toy to snuggle with. It may also help your child feel more comfortable if they have their favorite snacks on hand.

Read: Dad’s Plea For Son With Autism Who ‘Hasn’t 1 Friend’ Goes Viral And Birthday Wishes Pour In

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Presents for an Autistic Child

The presents can also lead to some big feelings. On one hand, a child may not even be concerned about the boxes or packages because they are wrapped up and their contents are not visible. On the other hand, an autistic child may not understand why they have to wait to open the presents that are meant for them. They may become confused which can lead to frustration.

Putting presents out closer to Christmas may minimize this confusion. Additionally, if your child struggles with fine motor skills and finger dexterity, they may need some verbal guidance or visual explanation of how to break through the packaging.

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Visiting Santa

Visiting Santa can be both daunting and exciting for an autistic child. If this is a concern, you may be able to find some sensory-friendly events in your area that have a sitting with Santa attraction. If something like this isn’t an option, you can call ahead to schedule an appointment to see Santa when there is less foot traffic in your local mall or at school events.

Thoroughly explain the steps with your child using first/then statements. For example, “First we will go to the Mall and do our holiday shopping, then we will see Santa, then we’ll go get lunch, then we’ll come home to do our holiday craft.

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Holiday Projects or Activities for an Autistic Child

Holiday Vocabulary Kits are a great way to introduce an autistic child to the new things they will encounter during the holidays, this includes snow, Christmas trees, or gift-giving. Making ornaments, Christmas cards, or snowflakes, are a fun low-key activity to do at home. They can also help introduce holiday terms and concepts as well as allow your child to feel included in the decorating or gift-giving process.

Baking or Cooking, together in general is also a great activity to do with your children. Furthermore, for an autistic child, food is a challenge. Textures or smells can create certain aversions to food. However, allowing them to take part in cooking or baking will make them feel included and give them a visual sense of what they will be eating.

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Creating a Sensory Holiday Bin or Bottle may also help your child feel more comfortable with the holidays and give you a fun activity to do together. Fill the bin with tiny Christmas trees, Cinnamon Sticks, Christmas ribbons or bows, and other fun holiday textures or toys. For the bottle project, add water and some vegetable oil, you can add Christmas glitter or a few drops of red or green food coloring. To add dimension, you can put in a few tiny candy cane, gingerbread, or Santa figurines.

Slime or Playdough may also be a good sensory activity. This calming activity can help with fine motor skill development. Adding a few drops of peppermint or cinnamon oil will make this a perfect holiday-themed stocking stuffer.

Keep Reading: Mom puts ban on Christmas presents as she says they cause ‘stress and debt’

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Sources

  1. 7 ways to help children with autism enjoy the holidays.” ABA Centers of America. December 21, 2021.
  2. 5 ways to prepare your child with autism for the holiday season.” Autism Learning Partners. Retrieved November 21, 2022.
  3. Make the season bright for children on the autism spectrum.” Akron Beacon Journal. Kent Weeklies. December 15, 2020.
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