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Holiday and Travel Advice for Autism Parents

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The magical season of sweater weather, hot cocoa, sweet treats, and festive holiday music has finally arrived. This time of year is associated with feelings of happiness and joy. There are typically a lot of fun activities occurring this time of year, depending on each family's traditions. During this time of year, some families take holiday photos, send out cards, go on trips, decorate their homes, play games, visit Santa, bake cookies, exchange gifts, build gingerbread houses, and even snowmen. At the same time, all the activities associated with the holidays may induce excitement for most; for individuals with neurodiversity, these events can be overstimulating and even quite stressful. If your child is autistic, you’re not alone. The CDC estimates that one in every 54 children in the United States is autistic. The global average is 1 in every 160 children. Yet, despite its prevalence, Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) aren’t clearly understood in our culture at large.


Holiday Travel

Traveling during the holidays can be stressful for anyone, let alone an autistic child. So one tip is to ensure they understand a visual or written schedule of where and when you will be traveling. So if you are taking a car ride to grandma’s house, use pictures to show this in a visual planner with estimated times; you will leave and arrive and what they can expect when they arrive; this can help decrease stress. You might want to show the progress on a map, let them follow the progress on a GPS or Google maps. To make the trip more enjoyable, be sure to pack their favorite snacks, stuffed animals, music, or things that will provide comfort. Here is a visual planning resource you can use this holiday season to help your child understand the order of events, who they will be seeing, what homes or hotels they will visit, and how they will get there.

Preparing Your Home

If you have ever hosted an event at your home, especially during the holidays, you are familiar with the stress associated with all the preparations. You may have felt overwhelmed because you didn’t start the food prep on time, are missing necessary ingredients, or are behind on cleaning. Many of these stressors can be avoided or diminished if you plan ahead of time. Just like you want to have a game plan for your holiday preparations, you want to come up with a plan for making the holiday as comfortable as possible for your child. If you’re having guests over, you may want to consider ways of minimizing the impact it has on your child's routine. For instance, you may choose to have the guests stay in a spare room versus having your child switch rooms to accommodate their stay. This can prevent unnecessarily interrupting their sleep routine. Also, if guests are coming over and your child gets overwhelmed, they have the secure and safe space of their bedroom they can retreat to so they can unwind.

Comfort & Joy

What else can we do to alleviate some of the holiday stress? We would all like to experience comfort and joy during this time of year. Take a moment to reflect on the food your child enjoys. Will there be the food they want available to them over the holidays? Traditional meals are typically a significant element of holiday gatherings. Although it may be tempting not to make extra dishes, providing options to a child on the spectrum can make the holidays more enjoyable for all. Think about it; there are already several environmental changes in effect around the holidays that may be a hard adjustment. Why add the stressor of not having preferred food available to your child? They may already struggle with the sights, sounds, and smells associated with the holidays. During family gatherings, there might be a new baby crying, the overwhelming scents of unusual food, the visual stimuli of twinkling lights on Christmas trees, and new people moving around, laughing and talking. That’s quite a bit for anyone with sensory issues to adjust to: consider all the small ways you can make your child comfortable or provide a space for them to retreat to.

Thoughtful Gift Giving

What does your child enjoy? What kinds of gifts are appropriate for them? For example, do they like playing with a ball, building with Legos, or do they like music? Some toys may have age-appropriate suggestions on their labels, but each child is different. If you have a family participating in a gift exchange, let them know what your child likes. Often when giving gifts, people like to project their wishes and ideas into the gifts they give; however that is no fun if the child doesn’t have an interest in the items. Even if your child likes only a select number of things like blocks and puzzles, then there is no problem getting them a variety of different blocks and puzzles. If possible, even have your child make a wish list of things they would like. They may find through browsing through various items that they have additional items that interest them.


During this time of year, there are many holiday events in the community. There are many parades, festivals of lights, breakfasts with Santa, holiday concerts, and holiday services. These activities can be enjoyable for families, but they can also be overwhelming if not planned out properly. Consider starting small, instead of going to a day-long event, maybe try out an hour-long activity. Also, you may want to consider making a schedule of the day and going over your plans with your child. Another recommendation is to bring your child's preferred items along.

Parent Tips for Community Outings

  • Start with small and short outings.

  • Make and review a schedule with your child.

  • Provide children's preferred items.

  • Consider bringing a wagon or stroller for children who have issues walking far distances.

  • Have an exit strategy ready beforehand.

  • Bring extra hands to help when possible.

Have a wonderful Holiday Season!

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