Ease Holiday Stress for Children With Autism

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on December 13, 2016

The holiday season is supposed to be the most magical time of year, but for parents of children with autism, it can present certain challenges. Amid the large crowds, noisy atmospheres, and bright lights, “people with autism of all ages may have sensory sensitivities or become overwhelmed,” explains Lindsay Naeder, Autism Speaks’ director of the Autism Response Team, which provides information and resources to families with children with autism. This can make shopping for gifts or going to parties extra stressful. Fortunately, there are a few tips parents of children with autism or other sensory disorders can use to help their loved ones stay safe and calm.     

Know Their Limits

It’s important to be familiar with your child’s ability to handle noisy environments and activities. This can help you prepare ahead for stressful situations, as well as know which ones to avoid altogether, like the mall on Black Friday. 

Look for Quiet Spots

Check out shopping centers or party venues in advance. “It can help to find a quiet place away from crowds or music to take a break and relieve stress or anxiety if there are signs that a child or adult with autism is becoming overwhelmed,” Naeder says. If you’ll be at a family member’s house, think about preparing a calm space inside or outside for your child to play games or decompress.

Find Stores That Offer Sensory-Friendly Shopping Days

Toys ‘R’ Us and Target offer quiet shopping hours at certain locations around the country. Autism Speaks is also partnering with some shopping malls to provide sensory-friendly Santa programs to families who have children with autism and other special needs, Naeder says. These include specially trained Santas who learn how to support people with autism and special needs. After families meet Santa, they have a chance to do some morning holiday shopping together before the crowds arrive. Find out if a mall near you is participating.


Decorate Gradually

Instead of converting your home into a winter wonderland all at once, introduce decorations in stages -- for example, put up the Christmas tree one day; decorate it the next. Allow your child to help and interact with the decorations.

Take Safety Measures to Prevent Wandering

Around 50% of children with autism wander from safety, so “families should have a multifaceted approach to safety and plan ahead when going into new environments, including holiday shopping or parties,” Naeder says. You could try giving your child an ID bracelet or tracking device to wear, or alerting neighbors about the risk of wandering in advance. Find other tips to prevent wandering.   

Avoid Surprises

Try not to take your child on last-minute shopping trips or rush them out the door to a party. Changes to routine can be hard for children with autism. To let them know about your plans, try putting up a visual schedule, like photos or a calendar on the wall, Naeder says. This gives them an idea of when to expect parties, outings, and other events. And try to stick to routines. Maintaining your child’s usual breakfast and bedtime can give a sense of comfort during a busy holiday season.  

Pack Comforting Items

Whether you’re heading out for the day or a few nights, bring items your child is familiar with, such as music, books, or snacks. Having these on hand can help them calm down in stressful situations. It’s also a good idea to bring your own food in case your child doesn’t like the food served.


Choose Toys Wisely

Look for toys that provide both fun and learning opportunities, Naeder suggests. Children can especially benefit from toys that encourage social interaction through play and help build various skills, such as turn-taking and language skills.

Put Rules in Place Around Gifts

Explain ahead of time that gifts aren’t meant to be opened without the rest of the family there, and avoid temptation by waiting until Christmas Eve to bring out particularly large packages. When it’s time to open gifts, you can try passing an ornament as a signal for whose turn it is to open gifts to avoid any confusion.

Appreciate the Memories

Even if the day doesn’t go exactly as planned, it’s OK. It’s more important to remember to cherish even the smallest holiday moments together, Naeder says. 

Show Sources

Lindsay Naeder, Autism Speaks.
Autism Speaks.
Autism Society.
National Autism Association.
AHEADD: "About Us."
American Family Physician: "Speech and Language Delay: What Does This Mean for My Child?"
Association for Science in Autism Treatment: "Is Autism on the Rise?"
Autism Genome Project: "About the AGP."
Autism Society: "About Autism," "Causes," "Related Conditions," "Medical Diagnosis," "Asperger's Syndrome," "Related Conditions," "Environmental Health Initiative," "Educational Mandates," "Placement," "Transitions."
Autism Speaks: "What is Autism?" "Symptoms," "New Imaging Techniques Shed Light on Autism," "Diagnosis," "Asperger Syndrome," "Frequently Asked Questions," "Applied Behavior Analysis," "Your Child's Rights," "Assistive Technology."
The Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Binghamton University: "About Autism and ASD."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Autism Spectrum Disorders," "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Signs and Symptoms," "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Facts About ASDs," "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Screening and Diagnosis," "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Screening and Diagnosis for Healthcare Providers," "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Treatment," "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Data and Statistics."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities: "How Many Children Have Autism?"
First Signs: "Lead Screening," "If You Have Concerns," "Your Local School District."
Godlee F. British Medical Journal January 5, 2011.
Institute of Medicine. Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. National Academies Press; Washington, DC, 2011.
Johnson CP. Pediatrics. November 5, 2007.
Leung AKC. American Family Physician. June 1999.
Myers SM. Pediatrics November 2007.
National Institute of Mental Health: "Research Into Causes and Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders"; "Autism Blurs Distinctions Between Brain Regions," June 2, 2011; "Autism Spectrum Disorders"; "Autism Spectrum Disorders: Treatment Options"; "Autism Risk in Younger Siblings May Be Higher Than Previously Thought," August 23, 2011.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Autism Fact Sheet."
OASIS: "What Is Asperger's Syndrome?"
Science Daily: "Autistic Mannerisms Reduced by Sensory Treatment," April 27, 2008; "Popular Autism Diet Does Not Demonstrate Behavioral Improvement," May 20, 2010.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "FDA Warns Marketers of Unapproved 'Chelation' Drugs."

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info