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Handling the Holidays with Autism

It’s beginning to look, smell, sound and feel a lot like Christmas everywhere you go.

Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it can also be overwhelming for some. The break in routine, crowded stores, heightened sensory experiences and more can be an assault on the senses — especially for children with autism.

To help keep the stress at bay and ensure your days are merry and bright, we’ve asked Mary Maherfounder and CEO of Synapse Sitters in central Indiana, to share some tips on how she and her family handle the holiday stress. Maher and her husband have two children: a son who is 6 and a daughter who is 5. When her son was 3 years old, he was diagnosed with autism. 

Find What Works for Your Child 

Maher agrees the holidays can certainly be a stressful and chaotic time of year for many people. She says this time of year can be especially difficult, at times, for her son who prefers a schedule and doesn’t like when his routine is interrupted. 

“He’s been in ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] therapy for a few years and was taught coping and assessment skills,” Maher says. This has been incredibly helpful during the moments he just wants to melt down.”

Maher says she and her husband learned that their son loves calendars and clocks because they give him a sense of predictability. Because of this, they discuss his schedule each morning, and go over any changes that may occur as soon as possible. And this includes changes that may happen over the holiday season. 

In addition to calendars and clocks, the Maher family also use storyboards from time to time. “These are sequential pictures that explain an activity or event that will soon be happening,” Maher says. “We’ve found several online, that we can print and display in places where he can see them daily. We talk about what’s happening in the picture, and how it relates to us. This helped us with potty training, getting ready each day, and going on errands and outings like going to visit Santa.” 

Coping with Travel  

A big change that has the potential to seriously disrupt schedule and routine is travel. Over the holidays, many families find themselves traveling out of town, and the Maher family is no exception. 

To prepare for travel, “We tell our son ‘We’re going to Michigan to visit your cousins on December 26,’” Maher says. “We will do this several weeks ahead of time, and repeat it several times before the trip. If plans change at the last minute, we’ll talk with him about it. We never just change plans and not tell him. If he starts to get anxious or upset, we’ll remind him to take some deep breaths. Once he’s calm, he can talk to us about why he’s upset. Acknowledging his emotions is the most important thing. He does a good job of calming himself down, because he knows it is difficult for us to help him otherwise.” 

With the holidays around the corner, you need to do what’s best for you and your family. Maher stresses that it’s important to know your limits and not feel like you have to do everything this holiday season. With good planning, communication and a few deep breaths along the way, you and your family can eliminate some holiday stress and hopefully have yourselves a merry little Christmas.  


Holiday Dos & Don’ts 

  • DO take deep breaths. 
  • DON’T feel pressure to do what everyone else is doing. If your child doesn’t want to see Santa, then consider skipping that event this year.
  • DO know your child’s limits. The holidays should be enjoyable, not forced or stressful.  
  • DON’T be afraid to ask for help.

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