The Most Stressful Wonderful Time Of The Year


With the arrival of the holiday season, the landscape of public space changes. Lights are draped and blinking along the edges of neighborhood roofs. Wreaths are attached to doors and mailboxes. Backyards are speckled with inflatable snowmen and nativity dolls. Shopping malls hum with an added sociality. Families embrace and friends talk. Communities gather around tables, trees, and hearths. And our schedules change: schools let out, work hours shift, and we travel more. For children with autism, all of this commotion can be stressful, exacerbated by sensory sensitivity and an altered routine. If your family is affected by autism, you may be daunted by the coming weeks.

Several national support organizations, including Autism Speaks and the National Autism Network, have shared tips and tricks to help your family more confidently navigate this holiday season. With some preparation, the festivities of winter can be more than a series of obstacles to overcome. Balancing ritual and precaution, the holiday season can be a vibrant, joyful time for you and your loved ones.


Whether you’re taking a vacation or staying home, prepare activities for travel or leisure time. These activities can include your child’s favorite toys, iPad games, stuffed animals, or old-fashioned books. Mark your calendar in advance for any changes in routine, so your child isn’t caught off guard by an upcoming journey. If you are having or going to a party, look over the guests’ photos or Facebook profiles with your child. That way, your child won’t be surprised by any new faces.

Read social stories about the holiday season with your child. Social stories are short descriptions of a particular  situation, event, or activity. They help us to prepare for an event, to know what it will feel like, and to know how to appropriately respond. Holiday Social Stories could describe meeting with relatives, decorating the house, or sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall. Through a number of apps, you can now write your own social stories and ‘comic strip conversations’ of upcoming activities.

Even the most smooth travel experience can be stressful for families, and unfortunately not all travel plans go exactly as planned. If your family plans to travel, consider activities for your child to enjoy while in the car, on the train, or on the plane. Remember, you may find yourself with travel delays or unforeseen waiting time. The Smart Fish: Frequent Flyer, an app available on iTunes, discusses each major step of airplane travel, from packing a suitcase to on-flight plane instructions. Whether you’re traveling to a friend’s home or across the country, share some photos of your destination with your child.

Consider your child’s level of sensory sensitivity when planning for holiday decorations. If your child is sensitive to bright lights, you may want to decorate your tree with popcorn or berries. Include your child in the tradition—he or she may enjoy the soothing, repetitive movement of stringing popcorn for decoration. If your child takes time to adjust to change, consider decorating the house one room at a time. If you attend a party as a family, note any safe, quiet rooms or spaces. You and your child may want to take refuge away from social activity. And bring your child’s favorite snacks or special foods! Gluten Free Goddess and Celiac Central have published fun, simple recipes that adhere to gluten-free restrictions.

Take some time to sit with your child, explaining why we give gifts to loved ones. It can be difficult to understand the joy another person feels upon receiving a present, so explain the satisfaction you feel when you select and give a gift. Practice unwrapping gifts together, and share an eager, warm reaction upon opening an envelope or box. Consider collaborating with your child to make and wrap gifts for those in your child’s circle of friends.

Your child deserves to share the warmth of the holiday season. In addition to the preceding tips, try arriving early to holiday gatherings, allowing your child to become familiar and comfortable with any new surroundings. You may need to explain to your other children, or to other children at a gathering, that your child’s experience of the party will be different from theirs: and that’s okay. Provide relatives with important information about your child’s level of sensitivity. For instance, if a hug will feel restrictive and painful, explain this to the other adults to avoid any unnecessary discomfort.

Above all, try to relax, and enjoy the unique joy of the season. Capture moments—trimming a tree, reuniting with relatives, opening gifts—with photography, and compile them into a book. Label each photograph with a description of what your child has done, shared, or learned. Later, you can look through this book together, reflecting on this set of new experiences. The book will be a reference for future conversations, and a way to prepare for this time next year, when autumn cools into winter, and when the holidays again arrive. •

Sarah Roth is Program Coordinator for Genes in Life. She is interested in the relationship between storytelling and health support systems. She received her MFA from the University of Notre Dame and her BA from Washington University in St. Louis. Sarah can be found @selizabethroth


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