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Sensory-Friendly Holiday Tips for Children with Autism

Current State of ABA

Click below for a quarterly update from Shelby Nelson, Director of Clinical Quality at Essential Speech and ABA Therapy and a BCBA!

Sensory Friendly Holiday Season

Holidays can be a challenging time for children with autism. Changes in routines, participating in new activities, and attending social gatherings can overwhelm those on the spectrum. When planning your holiday, careful preparation and open communication will ensure that any changes go smoothly. If you’re looking for tips to help your little one embrace the holidays with minimal fuss, keep reading! Halloween Halloween is an exciting holiday for kids! But scary sounds, spooky decorations, and itchy costumes can be upsetting for children with ASD. To help your child navigate this frightful holiday, parents and guardians can:

  • Create a personalized story to teach your child about Halloween. Include information about bright lights, spooky decorations, and colorful costumes! If you’re not sure where to begin, Autism Speaks has an excellent template for you to follow.

  • Remind your child that decorations and sounds are just pretend. They’re a fun way for people to celebrate the holiday!

  • Be aware of any sensory needs your child has while picking out a costume. Before the big day, have them wear the costume around the house to make sure it’s comfortable for trick-or-treating.

  • If your child is non-verbal or can’t say “trick-or-treat” consider printing out a sign. Remember that self-advocacy is important to children; if they’re old enough, make this a teaching moment!

  • Take a sensory toy, earplugs, or headphones with you while trick-or-treating.

Thanksgiving While Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on your blessings and express gratitude, this holiday can be stressful for children with ASD and their families. Long trips, family dinners, and other activities can cause anxiety for children on the spectrum. Whether you’re traveling or hosting on the 23rd, here are some ways to prepare for the holiday:

  • Talk about Thanksgiving with your children! Make the most of the holiday by using visual aids to learn new vocabulary, creating a personalized story to establish expectations during the holiday, or making Thanksgiving wristbands. Hopebridge has an excellent page that includes free wristbands, vocabulary books, and instructions on how to use Thanksgiving LAMP Words.

  • Practice meal-time behaviors in advance. Whether you’re dining at home or visiting family, this will help your child adjust to any changes. Positively Autism has an excellent social story that covers saying grace, being thankful, and mealtime changes.

  • Talk to the host in advance. If you’re traveling for the holiday, discuss any sensory challenges that your child might have, how to minimize them, and other situations that might arise with the host. From there, you can run several practice Thanksgivings and identify a pre-determined signal to use when the day becomes overwhelming.

  • Have some favorite food on hand. If your child is a picky eater, make a new tradition and have your child choose their own dish. It’s okay if it’s not a typical Thanksgiving meal!

Hanukkah This year, Hanukkah starts on Dec. 7th and ends on Dec. 15th. While Hanukkah is still two months away, it’s never too early to prepare! To help your child enjoy the holiday, parents and guardians can:

  • Use a Hanukkah social story to practice fire safety and explain the importance of the holiday.

  • Practice fire safety! Use electric lights or place the Menorah on a shelf where little hands can’t reach. Remember to put your Menorah on a baking sheet and far away from flammable objects.

  • Bring your child’s favorite food to social gatherings. If potato latkes aren’t their favorite food, it’s okay to pack chicken nuggets or other dishes they love.

  • Remember that less is more! To prevent overwhelming your child with a multitude of new toys, open one gift per night.

  • Identify a safe space where your child can decompress if they become overstimulated.

  • Do your own thing! If Menorah lighting at school or in a family member’s house creates too much anxiety, opt for a quiet gathering at home.

Christmas Christmas can be an overwhelming sensory experience for autistic children! Between the bright lights, loud music, and social interaction, Christmas can be a stressful time for children and families alike. To alleviate the stress of the holidays, follow these steps:

  • Are you visiting family on Christmas? Explain the change in schedule with a social story.

  • You can also talk about visiting Santa at the mall with this social story.

  • Take back the holidays and host Christmas at your house! Your child will be at ease in a familiar environment and you’ll have sensory-friendly activities to help them de-stress.

  • If you’re hosting this year, incorporate foods your child will enjoy into the menu.

  • Take a page from Hanukkah: give one gift per day over the week. This will prevent your child from becoming overwhelmed by new toys.

  • Does your child struggle with surprises? Have them choose their gifts and check them on Christmas Eve. You can also forgo wrapping if it creates anxiety.

  • Keep your daily schedule the same when possible. If you want to decorate or go Christmas shopping, choose one activity per day. For example, you might decorate the living room on Monday and turn on the Christmas tree lights on Wednesday.

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