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Helping Individuals with Autism Have a Happy Holiday Season

We all know that the holiday season can be a bit stressful, but for some neurodivergent individuals, stress is compounded by disrupted routines and overstimulation. 

People with autism can experience joy in holiday traditions, says Deborah Bilder, MD, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University of Utah Health. Awareness, preparation, and flexibility are key to enjoying this festive time of year.  

Autistic people and children with autism face a few challenges during the holiday season, but their needs are “really broad and are based on their abilities level,” Bilder says.  

“Generally, it comes down to three major challenges, all of which can be offset with some preparation.” 

1. Change and lack of routine 

For many people with autism, routine is crucial. If you can, try to keep your or your child’s schedule as typical as possible. Allow extra time to adapt to any changes in the schedule and work with friends and family members to manage expectations. If you’re caring for a child with autism, creating a visible schedule can help them prompt and prepare themselves, Bilder says. 

Also important, she says, is ensuring adequate time for sleep. 

“Schedules will go awry, despite best intentions. It is absolutely critical that you preserve time for you and your child to sleep. Whatever you’re doing and wherever you’re traveling, make sure you or your child are back in time to get a good night's sleep—because once sleep becomes compromised, everything else can fall apart more easily.” 

2. Overstimulation 

Another common challenge for adults and children with autism is overstimulation. The holidays are filled with crowds, lights, songs, bells, and a host of other sensory triggers. You can offset some of this by planning to go out during less crowded times and packing items like sunglasses, earmuffs, and sensory toys ahead of time. 

Planning ahead and finding a quiet space to take a break if the need arises can also reduce anticipatory anxiety for both parents and child.  

3. Stressful situations 

Stressful situations will undoubtedly arise during the holidays, but there are a few steps you can take to help offset additional worry. 

Wherever you’re going this holiday season, ensure there’s an area to quietly regroup—this can help individuals with autism feel safe and soothed before reintegrating. You can also bring a favorite book to help create distraction and snacks to avoid any food-related stressors. 

Many autistic adults and children have cues that demonstrate stress or overstimulation. Understanding and recognizing these cues can help create a safe and enjoyable environment for everyone. 

All that said, the holidays are, by nature, somewhat unpredictable. We all stray from our typical routines. Holidays bring about travel, new schedules, unfamiliar faces, and dramatic shifts in what and how we eat. Allowing for some flexibility can help people with autism enjoy the holidays instead of dreading them. 

“Most people with autism need their personal space,” Bilder says. “When it comes to holiday parties, it’s helpful to remember that you control your schedule. If you want to pop in, say hi, and leave, that’s ok. It’s important that no one feels trapped or uncomfortable.” 

Don’t be afraid to reach out

If you or your child need support this holiday season, don’t be afraid to reach out. “Do not hesitate to reach out to your child’s therapy, medical, and mental health providers when you need specific support or recommendations,” Bilder says. “We know the holidays can be a challenging time. The relationships and understanding you have developed with your provider all year long really makes a difference when emergent needs arise during the holidays.” 

You can also look for community support by searching for local organizations and Facebook groups, Bilder says. There are also several online support groups and resources to help autistic adults or parents of children with autism, including Autistic Self Advocacy Network, The Color of Autism, The Autism Parenting Magazine, and more