Enjoying the Holidays With Your Autistic Child

couple with daughter Christmas shopping at the mall

 Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

The winter holidays are inherently a wonderful time for some kids. Bright lights, candles, music, dreidels, parties, and visits with Santa can all be the stuff of happy childhood memories.

However, events that feature loud noises, big crowds, and bright lights can be overwhelming for autistic children as well as their parents and guardians. Even more difficult can be others' judgments of a child who just doesn't behave in the expected, neurotypical ways. The rolled eyes when a child isn't as responsive as other adults would like. The whispers when a child melts down, especially when they are "old enough to behave."

It can be tempting to disappear into your own home with your autistic child and shut the world out. Depending on your child and your situation, you may need that sometimes—but know that you don't have to.

There are ways for families with neurodivergent children to enjoy the winter holidays without pain. Here are some top suggestions for making the season bright.

Avoid Crowds

Crowds are tough for many people, and for kids with sensory sensitivities, they can be overwhelming. Children who are overwhelmed are much more likely to melt down, misbehave, or simply freeze up.

Avoiding crowds can be an easy solution. Instead of parades and big town-wide Christmas light events, consider taking a car drive to see some of the best local light displays. Some areas even offer large-scale drive-through light displays. You can enjoy the wonders of the beautiful lights without the cold, noise, or crowds.

Try to visit special holiday displays at off-hours. Look at themed windows when shops are closed, or stop in at decorated museums or shops first thing in the morning when no one else is up yet. Rather than visiting a crowded holiday market in a city, stop in at your local nursery where pretty holiday greens and lights create a miniature wonderland.

Instead of going to the mall to visit Santa, invite "Santa" to visit your home for a personal chat. If Santa is unable to make a home appearance, Google and check the paper for "sensory-friendly Santas." You can also do the same for shops, movies, museums and more. Many communities create experiences specifically geared to the needs of children and adults who experience sensory overload.

You can also plan activities inside your home or in a backyard if you have one. You all can stay home and make latkes or cookies, make paper garlands, cut snowflakes, or otherwise have crafty fun with your child. If you need to do most of the work, that's ok. You can use the technique of backward chaining to get your child as involved in the activities as possible and also teach them your holiday traditions.

Make Swaps and Adjustments

Many families look forward to attending full-scale musical or theater performances. When they go holiday shopping, it's a multi-hour affair, and spending the holidays at a loved one's house, or hosting it, starts at dawn and doesn't end until long after dark.

There are many ways to enjoy holiday experiences on a smaller scale. Just make sure to check in with your child in advance and throughout the days you spend celebrating.

Instead of attending a formal musical or dance event with your child, consider smaller, local performances or concerts that are more casual, less expensive, and shorter. Even if your child starts to melt down in the middle and you need to leave, you'll know your child had at least a taste of a classic holiday experience.

Plan on short, simple shopping trips that make sense to your child. Rather than trying to do it all at once, take your child shopping for just one or two special gifts for friends or family members. Encourage your child to select a particular gift for a loved one so they can have the experience of watching them open it.

When planning your actual holiday day(s), think about your child's needs before making any commitments. If your child can handle a couple of hours (but not a whole day) of family togetherness, decide ahead of time which hours are really important. Let your extended family know your plan, and stick to it.

If you generally attend religious services on Chanukah, Kwanza, or Christmas, consider sitting near the back of the building or near an exit so you have an easy and less disruptive "escape route." If the length or stimulation of the service becomes too much for your child, you can beat an easy retreat.

Prioritize What Your Child Likes

While you cannot cater to their every need, you can show your child that their family supports their interests by picking some activities they love to include in your celebrations. That might involve spending a night watching a holiday version of their favorite show, buying wrapping paper that features their special interest, or creating a particularly sensory-friendly experience in your house.

Consider choosing a few toys they can play with during long drives to visit family and when you arrive. It's important that you intentionally curate experiences that will resonate with your child, regardless of your feelings about their interests. After all, many adults still love watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Let your child decorate cookies no matter what the decorations look like. And if you can, make sure to wrap up a few presents that your child will love, no matter the age on the box. You can also watch The Muppets Christmas Carol instead of the longer, scarier versions of the story.

Be Gentle With Yourself and Your Child

It's normal to feel frustrated when your neurodivergent child doesn't seem to "get" the holidays or appreciate all you do to make the season special. It can be equally hard to endure the stares and comments of well-meaning family and friends who just don't understand why your child isn't appropriately happy and engaged.

You can't change the behavior or feelings of other people, but you can change your own.

To make the holidays easier for everyone, remember that the holidays aren't for garnering praise or appreciation; they're for building relationships and memories (and, for many people, for remembering the cultural and religious significance of Kwanzaa, Hannukah, and Christmas). If you're able to remember even a few special moments when the holidays are done, you've succeeded.

Try to find ways to connect with your child at their level or around their interests. Could you possibly find a way to drum up interest in the things that fascinate them, even for half an hour? You might be surprised at the positive results you get.

Give yourself permission to walk away from difficult situations. While some extended families and friends can be wonderful with autistic kids, others...aren't. If your family falls into that second group, it's ok to pack it up early and just go home. You're under no obligation to stick with an unpleasant situation. Even if it causes tension, remember that your child will appreciate your protection of them in the years to come. Their happiness and your peace of mind is worth the cost of a small argument.

Get support when you need it. Maybe you really need or want to attend a carol sing, a religious service, or a special party even if your child can't or won't. There's nothing wrong with asking for a little respite care from friends or family so that you can have the experiences you need to recharge and celebrate the holidays your way.

A Word From Verywell

For many people, the winter holidays are stressful. They can also be a perfect time of year to take a step back, notice what's gone well over the course of the last year, and celebrate small victories.

It's also a great time of year to spend with people you love. If that means fewer cookies and rugelach baked or fewer cards sent, it's a small price to pay to connect (or reconnect) with what makes your child unique and wonderful.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.