Christmas Chaos and Autism

Mano Family Christmas 2000 (I'm the one holding the baby, next to my Grandma)
Can you believe that next week is Christmas?  This year has just flown by.  I love the holidays, I love spending time with my family, and I love our family traditions.  For some, the holidays are our favorite time of year, but for others it can be too much.

I want to talk about a few reasons why the holidays can be rough for a child with autism, and some ideas you may want to consider as Christmas and New Years are coming soon.

Most children with autism are more successful when their life is predictable.  They usually like routine, schedules, and familiarity.  So here are a few reasons why the holidays may cause stress for them.
  • parents are stressed about the holidays
  • school routines are disrupted by holiday events
  • school is out for a week or two
  • the house is decorated differently
  • lots of sugary treats around (they probably won't complain about this part, but still it's a change in diet)
  • everywhere you go, there seems to be a crowd of anxious people (stores, driving, family gatherings)
  • there are lights everywhere (a lot of kids actually enjoy this part, but to some it may be overstimulating)
  • parties to go to
  • late nights
  • weather changes
  • weather changes = wardrobe changes
  • a big scary guy with a white beard and red suit keeps following you around (everywhere you go, there he is)
  • I'm sure this list could go on and on
Of course you can't eliminate a lot of these things, but there are somethings that can help a child to cope through these changes.  My advice would be to predict the times that are going to be the most difficult and make a plan of action.  

I will give you an example.  On Christmas Eve, my whole family (extended family included) gets together.  There are usually about 50-60 of us at my Aunt's house.  We have a nice dinner, people are everywhere upstairs and down.  After dinner we have a Christmas Talent Show where each family participates.  Then we end it with a pinata for the kids.  The whole thing screams over-stimulation.  Here are some things I would do to help plan for this night without having to miss one of the best nights of the year.
  • Have a designated room in the house that could be a "quiet spot" when it's needed.
  • Have some toys/dvds/music in there that are favorites.  This is a stressful time, you want some comfort zone activities that your child can enjoy.
  • Arrive a little early so your child can get used to the home if they're unfamiliar with it.  That way you're introducing things a little at a time instead of all at once.  First the new environment, then all the people.
  • If being around a lot of people is overwhelming for your child, have people go in one or two at a time to interact with your child.  You still want them to have some social time that's enjoyable.
  • If your child can tolerate the noise and people, just be sensitive to when they need a break, and allow them to have it.
  • Our Christmas Eve party is a tradition, so we do the same thing every year and we have it at the same place.  We have a lot of pictures, so I would make a picture book about Christmas Eve.  Then a week or two before the party, I would spend time (every day if possible) looking through the pictures and describing how the night goes.  Even if your child has delayed language, seeing the pictures and having you describe it is still important.  This will help things become more predictable.  
  • During the party, I would make sure I still had the picture book with me.  Then during transitions I could get the book out and talk about what's going to come next.
This blog is still new, so I'm not sure who's reading it, but I would love to hear what you do for the holidays to help cope during the chaos :)

Joy Mano
Utah PLAY Project Home Consultant
Early Intervention Treatment for Children With Autism


  1. Joy, I love this article! I never realized how stressful the Holidays can be! Even for me! The change in... well, everything... makes it hard for me to keep my balance too!

  2. Thanks Erinn! Yeah, it's no wonder everyone is so stressed during the holidays :)