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Why are the holidays difficult for children with autism?

William Stillman
Health Education Specialist

Holidays can be a stressful time for anyone, if you think about it! Routines are thrown off schedule, last-minute preparations are to be made, and oftentimes large numbers of people are gathered together. If you consider that those with autism are creatures of habit and routine that tend to be inherently gentle and exquisitely sensitive, you can appreciate how the holiday stressors you feel may be magnified times ten in your child.

When holidays are impending, the rule of thumb is to follow the Boy Scouts' motto, "always be prepared." If you have no (or lax) family schedule, now's the time to coordinate one with your child's assistance to show visually what's coming next. Agree on a "social out" signal your child can communicate when she needs to leave or at least take a break from the overwhelming sights, excited emotions, noise, music and laughter, and assorted cooking aromas. And ensure your child has a quiet spot to call her own (no matter your holiday location) to solitarily engage in her preferred activity.

Chantal Sicile-Kira
Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities Specialist

Often parents in the autism community will joke that we become more religious during the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving: we pray our children will behave while we are visiting relatives, we pray they will show interest in their gifts (and not just the ribbon), we pray they will sit at the dinner table, we pray they won't hit the relative who tries to kiss them, and above all - we pray that we will have the strength to politely ignore the judgments passed upon us and our ‘misbehaving' children.

Here are some areas of difficulties for children on the spectrum and their families during the holiday season:

  • The stores are full of noise, lights, lots of people, and winter holiday music that can create major overwhelm for those with sensory processing challenges.
  • Social requirements such as relatives wanting a hug or a kiss that can fell painful.
  • Holiday dinners where they are expected to try foods or sit for long periods of time with so many people and so much commotion.
  • Many children are mesmerized by the colors and textures of the ribbon and wrapping paper and do not open the present but stim (get engrossed and play) with the wrapping
  • The child does not understand personal space or have safety notions and so may run around the house or try to play with something breakable.
  • Relatives may think that the child is misbehaving, and may try to discipline the child, not realizing that the child really can't help it, and that discipline is not helpful when it comes to sensory overload and high anxiety.
  • Parents have a difficult time because they know there are certain expectations of behavior that relatives and friends have and that the child cannot fulfill.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.