7 Ways We Make Holiday Activities More Enjoyable for Our Child on the Autism Spectrum

Oh, the holidays. Just the word conjures up idyllic Normal Rockwell images of family gatherings, tasty food and joyful faces. But for my daughter, large gatherings can also mean extra stimming behaviors as she tries to regulate her sensory intake, and meltdowns. My biggest challenge of the holiday season as the mom of a child on the autism spectrum is the question of whether I am actually providing happy, holiday memories for her or merely increasing her stress and discomfort.

The line between fun and overwhelm can be small for my daughter. Excitement and anxiety can feel awfully similar. Here are a few ways we’ve learned to manage this challenge.

First, we include my daughter in plan-making. We ask her what she thinks she’ll be able to tolerate. We give our feedback. We decide together what holiday events will be included and what holiday events we’ll skip. For example, for her birthday this past year, she opted to skip the friend birthday party.

Second, we find alternatives. Instead of the birthday party, we chose a special activity that would be more enjoyable for her. We find smaller group gatherings. We do fun family activities at home.

Third, if we all choose to attend a holiday event, we talk about it and prepare ahead of time. Sometimes this looks like reading social stories together. Sometimes this includes role-playing. Sometimes this includes contingency planning or determining a secret code to alert us when it’s time to leave.

Fourth, we pack up and bring every tool we might possibly need. Weighted blanket. Chewies. Snacks she likes. Ear defenders. Gum. Brush. Every tool that works is thrown into her Nesel Pack.

Fifth, we always determine a time limit beforehand. And we discuss it with every child in our family. They know we will be leaving after dessert, or in an hour, or that we’ll go to the play but are not going to be going back to Grandma’s for the after-party.

Sixth, we model flexibility by being flexible with our own holiday traditions. Sure, baking Christmas cookies is a fond memory I have from my childhood, but it’s OK if my children have different memories. I’d rather they have memories filled with fondness then memories filled with frustration and overwhelm.

And finally, we focus on environment, mood and emotions rather than events and things. What emotion am I wanting to fill our family’s holiday season? Does this particular activity trigger that emotion or trigger something different?

I can’t say these things have totally eased my biggest challenge. I still often wonder if I’m being a good mom, and I struggle to find the balance of exposing my child to these activities and protecting her from potential pain and overstimulation. But I can say it is getting easier. The challenge is becoming smaller. And as my daughter and I both learn more about her beautiful neurodiversity, we’re learning how to have happier holidays.

Follow this journey on The Fringy Bit.

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