Survive the Holidays: By Ashley Flanders

Written by: Ashley Flanders, RBT

The holiday season is a time to welcome a break from our day-to-day lives, to get together with families, enjoy gift exchanges, decorate with bright lights, break out those annoying Christmas songs, and partake in rich food…all ways of celebrating that we have come to eagerly await. However, for individuals with autism, especially children, this comes with new expectations and a disruption in routines. The holiday traditions we hold dear may be a source of stress, frustration, or sensory overload for individuals with autism. Provided below is a list of general tips that may help your child feel more comfortable and get through the holidays unscathed (which the holidays are also known for!)

Care to Prepare

Knowing what to look forward for the season and/or on a certain day can help avoid stressors for you and your child, and how much preparation you engage in will depend on your child’s needs. Keep in mind what events have been a source of anxiety for them in the past and what could have helped in that situation. You could find or create a social story to read with your child that discusses what is going to happen during the holidays and what behavior is expected from all parties. You can also review a calendar with them a few days or weeks ahead of time, so they have a physical countdown of when these events are going to happen. Make it exciting and really emphasize the fun parts!

Practice for Success

Whatever your traditions are, roleplaying or using social scripts ahead of time may help the holidays run smoother. Whether opening presents, meeting Santa, or performing religious rituals, practicing can avoid catching your child unprepared and help them have a good time!

Getting to Know You

If you plan on visiting family or friends that your child has not spent a lot of time with, you may want to start easing your child into meeting them ahead of time. You can create a picture book with notes about each person to give to your child. On the other side, speaking to visitors about your child’s potential triggers, what they enjoy, and how they communicate can help visitors get to know your child better. For all parties, it may be helpful to discuss consent before touching others, to let your child know it’s okay to say “no” if they feel uncomfortable with new people and avoid embarrassing visitors if your child does not want to engage with them at first.

Plan B

Have a back-up plan for when you go out on the town, visit loved one’s homes, or are traveling. Carry a bag full of their favorite toys/activities or soothing items. Make sure you bring food that your child will eat. Before heading out, locate a safe area you and your child can go to take a break. Let people that are with you aware that you may take these breaks, and ensure them that  it is so everyone can have a positive experience.

Baby Steps

Ease your child into the season by taking gradual steps for events that may be overwhelming to them. For instance, when you begin decorating (and also taking down decorations) put only a few up every day until you build up to a perfectly merry home!

Sensory Relief

If your child has a history of being hypersensitive to certain stimuli, prepare for this as well by avoiding areas/events that may be agitating to them—for instance, holiday light shows or caroling. You can also use your “baby steps” to get them used to these experiences for the season or bring along appropriate sensory adaptive aids such as noise-reducing earphones or sunglasses.


This is for you and your kiddo! Encourage your child to communicate their needs through the holiday. Don’t feel afraid to voice to others what kind of supports and your child may require to get through the holidays.

Be safe, have fun, and happy holidays from ABA Connect!

Enjoying the Holidays with a Child on the Spectrum: Visiting Santa

By: Caroline Roesel, MEd, BCBA

Parents want their children to experience the “magic” of the holiday seasons and partake in as many activities as they choose. This can be challenging with a child on the spectrum who may want to partake in holiday activities, but have behaviors that may preclude them from doing so.

Parents who want their child to visit Santa Claus may worry about their child feeling anxious in large crowds, having a hard time waiting in line, and sitting still in Santa’s lap (without crying!). This is overwhelming enough to make caregivers give up before even trying. By using a few principles of behavior and planning ahead, your child could master the skills needed to have a great experience visiting Santa.

Managing Crowds:

If your child is overwhelmed by large groups of people, contact Santa’s place of work and ask when there are typically less people. Smaller crowds are more common when Santa events first open; if you can arrive a bit before the event opens, you will likely encounter shorter lines.

Most children have toys or treats that help them cope when they are overwhelmed. Bring these items with you to the event. Watch your child; they will likely demonstrate “warning signals” that let you know when they’re growing uncomfortable. When you see these warning signals, give them their toys or treats. Do no wait until they are having a tantrum to try and calm them, this may inadvertently teach them “When I have a tantrum, I get cool stuff.” Not the message you want to send!

Contact Santa’s Helpers:

Many Santa events often have a contact number. You can call to let the event workers know that you’re coming and you have a child with special needs. Tell them if your child would be more comfortable with certain changes, such as a speedier Santa visit, standing next to Santa instead of sitting on his lap, or giving Santa a list of desired presents instead of telling him verbally. People are happy to accommodate when they can, so don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Practice at Home:

If you want your child to take a picture with Santa, but are worried they will not tolerate sitting with him, practice taking pictures with different family members and family friends before you go to the event. Have your child go through the motions of sitting on someone’s lap and smiling at a camera. Try and practice this as much as you can 3 to 4 days prior to seeing Santa. The more comfortable your child is in front of the camera, the more likely they will be to say “Cheese!” on the big day!

Children with ASD can be a part of holiday fun and festivities. With a little planning and practice, caregivers can help their children with special needs to partake in the fun!

Decrease Autism-Related Shopping Meltdowns

Meltdowns happen. But, there are ways to decrease the likelihood your child will have a shopping meltdown. In my previous blog I discuss tips to understand shopping meltdowns. In this blog, I outline simple ways to decrease autism-related shopping meltdowns.

Tend to basic needs first

Before a shopping trip, tend to your child's basic needs. Make sure they are not hungry, they are rested, and they have received positive interactions with others such as play time with parents, peers, or siblings. Hunger and fatigue make children (and adults) more irritable. Before shopping, you could have a snack with your child and ensure you are attending to and delighting in their positive behaviors. From your child's point of view, shopping likely means a lot of difficult to manage sensory experiences (sights, sounds, and smells) and adult correction. Therefore, it is important to ensure positive interactions (even for 5 minutes) before a potentially stressful shopping trip.

Use a visual schedule and list

As much as possible, let your child know about the shopping trip before it happens. Visual schedules are incredibly useful for children with autism. Add shopping trips to your child's schedule, and better yet, try to have a routine grocery shopping or errand day each week. This will help increase predictability for your child. A visual shopping list with smart phone apps, pictures, or clip art can also help your child actively participate in shopping.

Identify meltdown triggers

Identifying meltdown triggers can help caregivers stay one step ahead of potential meltdowns. Some caregivers find that headphones, sunglasses, a soft object to hold, or the child's favorite foods can help reduce meltdowns. If you observe your child is becoming upset, take a moment to help them calm down before the frustration builds. This may require a pause in shopping so a full meltdown does not occur.

Teach calm shopping behaviors

Children need to learn what behaviors are expected. Some children need explicit teaching and modeling. Social stories and video modeling can help children learn appropriate social behaviors. Video modeling can include having your child watch a video of another child successfully shopping with an adult or a short clip of themselves engaging in calm behavior while shopping. Children may need specific reminders and prompts at different points of the video to ensure understanding. Parents can also attend to calm behaviors during the shopping trip with praise ("Nice inside voice!") and positive gestures such as a high five, or introducing small portions of food for the child's "calm" behaviors.


Planning can help prevent meltdowns. Make a shopping list, decide what shopping items are most important so you can get those items first, and try to reduce the total shopping time. If you ensure you have plenty of planned strategies to help your child stay calm, your child can learn how to manage the stresses of shopping.

Understanding Autism-Related Shopping Meltdowns

Children do not always go along with the shopping plan easily. Autism-related meltdowns can make shopping even more difficult. Understanding autism-related shopping meltdowns can help you and your child experience less stress during a shopping trip.

Carefully observe your child's triggers

Observe what happens before your child has difficulties. Most children are more likely to have a meltdown if they are hungry or tired. A common trigger for children with autism also includes sensory overload. The lights, sounds, smells, and crowds from a shopping trip can trigger a meltdown. Shopping at the popular grocery store on a Saturday may be more stressful for your child because it is loud and chaotic. You might observe that the smaller, less-crowded grocery store does not trigger a meltdown.

Understand the difference between meltdowns and tantrums

Both meltdowns and tantrums can include screaming, crying, falling on the floor, self-injury, and destruction. But, meltdowns and tantrums happen for different reasons. I define a meltdown as the visual display of a child becoming overwhelmed in response to a trigger. Meltdowns do not immediately stop when a child is given what they want or when they are taken out of an unpleasant situation. The intensity of emotion during a meltdown may take a minute (or more) to decrease.

Children throw tantrums to gain access to something (attention, food, toy,  etc.). Children also throw tantrums to avoid something (unpleasant activity, ending play, bedtime, mealtime, etc.). You can usually stop a tantrum by giving the child what they want (leaving the store, that special toy, attention, etc.). A child having a tantrum may also watch for your reaction to see if the tantrum is working.

Conduct an experiment

Parents can carefully observe and implement systematic changes to decrease the likelihood of a meltdown. If you know your child's triggers, you may be able to modify the trigger. For example, if a change in your child's drive home from school triggers a meltdown, plan to give him or her ample notice (verbally or visually) that a shopping trip will occur. If the grocery store's fluorescent lights are too bright, consider ways to reduce the child's exposure to the lights.

Understanding autism-related shopping meltdowns gets us one step closer to improving your errand-running experience! On my next blog, I will provide tips to prevent meltdowns.