Preparing Your Child with Autism for the Holidays


What are the ways I can help prepare my autistic child for the holidays?

Holidays can be fun but they can also be stressful. They can involve a change in routine including days off from school.

We typically spend two to three nights in a motel near family in San Diego for the holidays. We use one or two of those days to take our child to something “fun” in the San Diego area. We celebrate Christmas with that part of our family on Christmas Eve day and then on Christmas morning we drive to Simi Valley to celebrate Christmas with another part of the family.

First, discuss your plans with your child(ren). Let them know they’re going to spend a night or two or however long in a motel. If you’re staying with relatives, let them know ahead of time what your child with special needs might need.

Remember, many children with special needs do not like a change in their routine. They prefer their own room at home and their own bed. Once they are put into another sleeping situation, this may cause them stress.

I find talking to my child beforehand very helpful. Fortunately, I don’t have to do it as much as I used to. Our child at age nine is very familiar with traveling. However, when he was younger I would give him plenty of notice about what was expected of him in a hotel or staying at a family member’s home.

How else can we help our child?

Be flexible.

Our child’s change in routine did cause some stress and anxiety but we were often flexible. If our child’s normal bedtime was eight thirty but we were having a dinner and then opening presents on Christmas Eve night, I wouldn’t even consider enforcing his bedtime. He never would have been able to fall asleep because of all the excitement associated with presents and family. I gave into the fact that bedtime was not going to happen on this night.

And that was okay. Because I accepted that this night was not a normal night, everyone, including our child, was more relaxed.

What about car travel?

Well, we do a fair amount during that three day stretch. Again, I tell my child ahead of time that we have to drive to San Diego and he is expected to behave.

I also tell him that on Christmas morning, we have to get up fairly early to drive to Simi Valley (from San Diego). Our child typically does not mind this drive because he knows he’s driving to a “second Christmas” (meaning more presents).

If you have to drive longer distances, plan for stops not only for bathroom breaks but for possible “engine breaks” for your autistic child. Sitting in a car for long periods can be hard on them so let them know that you’ll be stopping so that they can stretch their legs.

What about food?

If your child is on a special diet, you must bring the special food with you. This applies even if you’re staying with relatives. My advice is to not impose on your host regarding special food. Your host is typically already going above the norm due to opening their home. I simply feel it’s impolite to ask a host to provide special meals for your child.

Plan on packing your child’s special meals and bring them with you.

If you are flying, you may have to shop at a grocery store once you reach your destination. We typically do this often. My child has never had a special diet but there have always been certain snack items that he preferred. We would visit a grocery store and stock up on a few items if our vacation was going to be more than a few days because we found it to be cheaper than always buying the snacks at a convenient store.

If you find that you’re grocery shopping, I would again urge you to not impose on your host for the cost of special items. In most cases, if your child’s food needs go beyond what everyone else is eating, the cost should be on you.

What else about the holidays?

Often, the holidays mean visiting family or even friends that you don’t often get to see. Perhaps you only get to see this side of your family once a year during the holidays.

Remind your child to be polite and respectful. Practice with your child saying simply things like, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Channukah” or “Hello, Grandma, I missed you.” Try to get them to say something nice like this when they first see their relatives. It’ll make a good immediate impression and could set the tone for the whole visit.

The holidays are a time for celebrating and being with loved ones. Preparing your child with special needs to not only enjoy these holidays but also participate while trying to lesson disruptions is your main goal. If you plan ahead and talk to your child(ren) you increase the chances that the holidays will go smoothly and everyone will have a good time.

To Find Kimberly Kaplan: or Amazon Kindle ebook “A Parents’ Guide to Early Autism Intervention”
Twitter: @tipsautismmom



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