Holiday Planning that Makes Room for Autism

holiday stress autism

A Parent’s Perspective: No more holiday stress

The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy, celebration, and togetherness. However, for parents and caregivers of children with autism, it can also bring unique challenges as well as full-on stress. I think the pressures of the holiday season make special needs parenting ten times harder than the rest of the year. 

The sensory overload, crowded gatherings, and disruptions to routines can make this time of year incredibly overwhelming for your child and yourself. At ABA Connect, we want every child and their family to enjoy the festivities while considering the specific needs of individuals on the autism spectrum. As a parent, I know this is easier said than done. In this blog, we’ll explore a few proactive tips to help your holiday season go smoothly.

holiday stress autism

Sensory Challenges and Solutions

Preparing for Loud Music and Flashing Lights

The bright lights and blaring music that often accompany holiday events can be overwhelming for children with autism. To help your child navigate these sensory situations, it’s essential to have strategies in place. By now, you probably understand your child’s unique sensitivities well. 

Pack sensory tools such as:

  • Headphones
  • Sunglasses
  • Comfort Items
  • Essential Oils
  • Weighted Blanket or Vest

An occupational therapist may develop a personalized sensory diet for your child, but Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) techniques can also help. 

ABA Connect offers individualized strategies to help children cope and enjoy stimulating environments. By gradually exposing your child to sensory stimuli in a controlled manner, they can build tolerance over time. For example, start playing soft holiday music at home before gradually increasing the volume. Or, let your child be in charge of turning on holiday lights at home. 

Setting Clear Expectations for Large Family Gatherings

Crowded family events during the holidays can be challenging for children with autism who struggle with social interactions or feel uncomfortable around unfamiliar faces. 

Setting expectations is key:

  • Decide on an arrival and departure time
  • Brainstorm topics to talk about or avoid talking about
  • Give your child a list, or pictures, of people who will be at the gathering
  • Create a visual schedule of events
  • Take a break

ABA Connect recognizes the importance of social skill development and aims to make family gatherings a positive experience. Our therapists work closely with families to create plans that address specific social challenges. Through targeted interventions, such as role-playing or visual supports, we help children develop appropriate social behaviors and engage meaningfully with relatives during these special occasions and all year long.

Traveling with Ease

Making Traveling Smoother

Traveling itself can pose unique difficulties for individuals on the autism spectrum due to changes in routine and unfamiliar environments. Similar to how you help your child with sensory overload, you can implement some of the same techniques with travel, such as headphones, snacks, and favorite toys. By using visual schedules, social stories, and other ABA techniques, we can help prepare your child for the journey ahead. These tools assist in reducing anxiety and increasing predictability by providing step-by-step guidance about what to expect during the trip.

As a parent, I allow my child large amounts of screen time on road trips. A tablet, video games, or a movie playing in the car or airplane is an excellent way to pass the time. Having the technology to support children during travel is a gift to your child and the rest of the family members traveling with you!

Holiday Meals and Picky Eating

Tips on Picky Eating During Holiday Meals

Holiday meals can be filled with a wide variety of dishes, but for children with autism who struggle with selective eating or sensory sensitivities, navigating these gatherings can be challenging. At ABA Connect, we address feeding issues head-on and promote a positive relationship with food.

Our team of therapists employs evidence-based techniques to gradually expand your child’s food preferences. By introducing new foods in a non-threatening manner and utilizing reinforcement strategies, we work towards expanding their diet and ensuring they can participate fully in holiday meals.

Foods to avoid or replace with a healthier option:

  • Candy
  • Sweets and sugar
  • Artificial colors or flavors
  • Caffeine
  • Gluten (if your child is gluten-free)
  • Dairy (if your child is lactose intolerant)

Plan around holiday foods you know will affect your child’s behavior or mood as much as possible. Holiday treats can cause inflammation or constipation, something many of our kids struggle with on an ongoing basis. Eat clean, especially if your child has food sensitivities or allergies that prevent them from indulging in holiday treats, and plan to offer alternatives you know they enjoy

Sensory Tips for Classic Holiday Traditions

Enjoying Holiday Traditions with Sensory Tips

Classic holiday activities like decorating the tree, wrapping presents, and opening presents can present sensory challenges for individuals on the autism spectrum. However, with the right strategies, these traditions can become enjoyable experiences for everyone involved.

To make these activities more sensory-friendly, consider breaking them down into smaller steps and providing visual supports such as checklists or social stories. ABA Connect offers tailored approaches that account for individual differences while ensuring each child can engage in these beloved traditions.

Advocating for Your Child During the Holidays

One of the most challenging things for me as a parent around the holiday is promoting understanding of autism to my family and friends. Unless I explain it to them, they don’t know how difficult traditional holiday parties, foods, and stimuli can be for my child and me. It isn’t easy to talk about autism, but choosing to do so can make a difference in your overall experience of the season. Sometimes, tension can arise when a family member offers unsolicited advice. Have you ever noticed people who don’t understand autism are often all too willing to provide advice on how to raise your child? 

Dealing with Unwanted Advice from Family and Friends

Be Honest

First, thank your friend or family member for trying to help. Then, state you aren’t looking for parenting advice. If the person seems receptive, use it as an opportunity to educate them on autism and why your child behaves the way they do. Education is advocacy!

Use Humor

Cracking a joke, no matter how sarcastic can help ease the tension you feel when family members are not accepting of your child’s behaviors. 

Take a Break

Explain to friends and family that your child sometimes needs to take a break or move away from too much activity. Be sure to say it’s nothing anyone did; it’s just the nature of autism to sometimes need to retreat. And hey, if you need a minute, take one for yourself, too!

Let it Go

Sometimes, none of these suggestions work at the moment. If it comes to that, smile and let it go. You can move on with your plans. Or, you may need to go home. 

Develop a Secret Signal 

It’s always good to have an escape plan. You can develop a secret signal with your child or partner if you need to transition from a situation. Your secret signal can be a nod, head scratch, or code words. As soon as you see or hear it, respond immediately. 

Deck the Halls with Understanding

The holiday season should be a time of joy and celebration for all families, including those affected by autism. At ABA Connect, our commitment is to empower children on the spectrum and their caregivers by providing personalized support that makes room for autism during this festive time.

By addressing sensory challenges, facilitating smooth travel experiences, tackling picky eating concerns, and offering sensory tips for classic holiday traditions, we hope you can create memorable moments that are enjoyable for your whole family. With ABA Connect by your side, you can confidently navigate the holiday season, knowing your child’s needs are understood and respected.

Remember, each child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. We encourage you to share your experiences and tips in the comments below. Let’s make this holiday season a truly special time of joy and celebration for children with autism.

If you found this post helpful, please like, share, and follow for more content on autism or ABA therapy.

If you are interested in a positive, play-based approach to ABA, contact ABA Connect.


Please note that while I am a consultant writing on behalf of ABA Connect, my child is not a current client. The views and experiences shared in this blog post are entirely from a parent’s perspective. I aim to provide informative content and insights based on my personal experiences as well as interviews conducted with the staff at ABA Connect.


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