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Minimizing Holiday Stress for Children with Autism

Posted on Dec 20, 2019

By Jason Hangauer, Ph.D.
Pediatric Psychologist, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital

The holiday season can be an exciting and magical time of the year for kids. However, children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and his or her caregivers may sometimes find aspects of the holiday season particularly stressful. Jason Hangauer, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, shares ideas to help make the upcoming holiday season more enjoyable and minimize stress for children with ASD and their families. This is also great information for the general public, who may also interact with a child with ASD during the holiday season:

Know Your Child’s Limits

Many children with ASD have unique sensory sensitivities that can cause them to become overwhelmed in large crowded situations with bright lights and a noisy atmosphere. It can be very helpful to know what your child’s limits are and decide ahead of time what activities may pose a problem and consider skipping those. Be sure to check out specially designed activities for children with ASD as well as other children with unique needs such as:

  • Sensitive Santa: Specially trained Santa who takes extra care to help support sensory, physical and other developmental needs of children with ASD.
  • Sensory Friendly Activities: A number of specially designed sensory friendly activities are available during the holiday season that limit the amount of noise and lights that can be difficult for children with ASD. Check online for locations and times and be sure to register in advance as the groups are kept small so children do not become overwhelmed.

Plan Ahead

Children with ASD can frequently struggle with changes that are unexpected. Bringing familiar items can help ease their anxiety.

  • Gradually decorate your home. Some children may have trouble with sudden changes to their environment.
  • If traveling, create a “busy bag” of items that are highly desired by your child that can keep them occupied in the car or airport. Only allow your child to play with the items during times they need to stay occupied.
  • Communicate ahead of time the expectations. Create a social story of an upcoming event such as flying on an airplane. Numerous online resources can help you design one for you child and the specific situation.
  • Show your child pictures of the places they will be going as a supplement to a social story. Bring them with you to each event.
  • Consider food availability. If your child is very picky, remember to bring backup food items with you when you attend an event or are traveling.

Practice Ahead of Time

  • Practice conversation skills ahead of time. Help your child with conversation starters so they can more easily engage with relatives or other persons.
  • Practice unwrapping gifts, taking turns, waiting for others and giving gifts. Role play scenarios with your child in preparation for him or her getting a gift they may not want and how to respond politely. 

This story first appeared in Tampa Bay Parenting magazine.


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