Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Enjoy the Holidays

holiday sensory tips

The holidays can be stressful for anyone. There are statistics showing rates of suicide and depression go up drastically this time of year. Not only do the prospect of being around family, handling traditions, and other aspects of the holiday bring stress, but even the weather itself can cause issues for those with seasonal affective disorder.

However, for children and adults on the spectrum, the level of sensory overload can be astounding during the holidays. There are more people, more experiences, more lights, more sounds, and generally more of everything this time of year. This can quickly be overwhelming for individuals who do not process sensory data properly. Every touch, sound, sight, and various other experiences can be even more bothersome because at times it is hard to find a place away to “reset” things.

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Below we have our top tips and resources to help your child or loved one make it through the holidays a little easier. If you have any tips that have helped your family we would love to hear them in the comments below so be sure to share your favorites!

Related: How to Determine if Your Daughter Could Have Autism 

children with autism

Sensory Friendly Holiday Decorating

A sudden change as can occur with holiday decorating can be very disorienting. This is particularly true for individuals who rely on routines to make it through the day. A great way to help individuals on the spectrum enjoy holiday decorations more is to introduce things gradually. Add a few things each day leading up to the big day and involve the individual in the process so that they are aware of the changes occurring and can feel as though they are an active part. This can help ease the stress of a changing house for the holidays.

If you have photos of past holidays you can take a day to look through them and discuss holiday traditions. This can also help to prepare the individual for decorating and help them get excited about the holiday.

When choosing lights it is a good idea to take your child with you. Let them decide if they would prefer blinking lights or solid ones, white lights or colored ones, etc. Granted, opinions can change but when they do make sure to remember the things that your child liked about the lights or decorations and discuss the positive aspects.

It is also a good idea to have a place in your home where there are no lights or decorations. This can be used as a place to escape for some quiet time when things become overwhelming. Even as a relatively NT parent, I find it calming at times to have an escape from all of the hustle and bustle.

children with autism

Holiday Travel

Is there any question that travels during the holidays can be stressful? As an individual with autism, it can quickly become a bit more than they can handle. All of the moving fast, the new faces, and the sounds of an airport can lead to trouble quickly. Luckily, there are ways to help make things easier for everyone.

An ID for everyone is always a good idea. Even parents of NT ( neurotypical ) children can find peace of mind by having all children carry an ID. This could be a medical ID or even something as simple as the Kids Travel Card or the Ident-A-Kid ID. In a pinch, even a laminated card with their medical information, contact numbers, and a picture can work.

It is always a good idea to plan ahead for traveling when using an airline. Call before the flight to inform the airline that you will be traveling with someone on the spectrum and discuss any arrangements that may need to be made. When going through security it is important to let the agent know that you are traveling with a special needs child and any ways that they can minimize the discomfort of the experience for your child. Thankfully, TSA offers a variety of special services for travelers with disabilities including a pre-approved status, printable disability notification card, and many others.

Social Stories for Holiday Travel

As mentioned in my article on Magnus Cards, aids such as social stories and cue cards can be immensely helpful in both preparing for and experiencing new events. The child can go over the steps that will happen for a few days before the event to help prepare. They can also follow step by step during the event to know what to expect next and to help guide them through.

A few great examples of social stories and cue card resources are listed below:

Social Stories for Traveling

Social stories are a great way to prepare for an event. They can help even NT children understand what is going to happen. The travel social stories give kids information on what will happen on their first flight.

Preparing for a Trip on an Airline by Kidmunicate

We are Going on a Plane by Love Many Trust Few

Going on an Airplane by AbilityPath

My First Flight by The Mad Mommy

Going on an Airplane by Autism Educators

Airport and Plane Stories by Little Lifelong Learners

Cue Cards for Autism

Another great resource when traveling with an individual on the spectrum is a keyring including cue cards for the behavior or action that is expected in a particular situation or event. This can be used as an instruction or visual cue to help reinforce any previous discussion or preparations you have done. Cue cards are a great resource because they can help you and your child with autism properly communicate wants, needs, and other important aspects.

Cue cards can involve a particular task that needs to be done or can be used by your child to help show you how they are feeling or what they need. Perhaps they don’t know how to express their frustrations in a particularly busy environment but they may be able to show you using a cue card how they are feeling.

A few great resources for cue cards are listed below:

Behavior Cue Cards from Autism Circuit

Communication and Behavior Cue Cards from Victories n Autism

Visual Cue Cards by Teaching Differently

Needs and States by Practical Autism Resources

Picture Cards from Do2Learn

If you prefer using apps a few great options ( although a little more costly) include:

iCommunicate by Grembe Inc.

First Then Visual Schedule HD by Good Karma Applications

ABA Flash Cards ( emotions ) by Alligator Apps

children with autism

Handling a Meltdown

Sometimes, meltdowns are just inevitable. Even with the best plans or preparation things can change, or your child could just be having a bad day. We all have them.

A comfort item from home can be used to help calm meltdowns. This could be a stuffed toy or a small blanket.

Many airports have areas for children. A few have areas particularly for travelers on the spectrum. Making use of quiet spaces away from the crowd can be useful in avoiding or calming a meltdown. The key is to avoid the massive amounts of sensory information in these places during the holidays and giving the child a chance to recharge.

A great way to handle stress during the holidays and help calm meltdowns is to have sensory items available on hand. This could be a basket if traveling by car or at home, a backpack if traveling by plane, or even just a small bag with a few items if you are low on space.

We will be doing a post in a few days on our favorites for a sensory basket. However, below we have a few items that have been particularly helpful.

A favorite stuffed animal or blanket from home.

A favorite tablet or handheld game.

iSPY bottles or sensory bags.

silly putty ( I am a big believer in silly putty or other nontoxic clay/dough for many sensory issues!)

noise canceling headphones and music


coloring books and colored pencils ( they tend to break less often than crayons for us)

Your Holiday Tips or Tricks

Do you have a particular tip or trick to help your children have a less stressful holiday? ( or even one to help yourself! Us moms can get pretty stressed out during the holidays too!) We would love to hear what works for your family. Be sure to share in the comments with us!

Good Luck and Happy Holidays!

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