Five easy tips to help individuals with autism enjoy the holidays

Miami's Community Newspapers

For households across the world, the holidays bring joyous anticipation for family gatherings and celebrations. But the sights and sounds traditionally tied to the season, can be overwhelming and stressful for adults and children on the Autism Spectrum, said Dr. Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD).

“The holidays are hectic and stressful for you and me, but for someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) it can be especially challenging. Disrupted schedules and routines, new faces and places, as well as the sensory overload of music, decorations and smells can cause ASD individuals undue stress and anxiety,” Dr. Alessandri said.

Here are five tips from UM-NSU CARD and the Autism Society of America to help make all your holiday celebrations more ASD friendly:

1. Preparation is crucial for many individuals with autism. Determine how much preparation a specific person may need ahead of the holidays. For example, if your loved one tends to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her. Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the dates of various holiday events, or by creating a social story that highlights what will happen at a given event.

2. Ease in to the holiday décor, as decorations around the house may be disruptive for some. It may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house. If such a photo book does not exist, use this holiday season to create one. For some it may also be helpful to take them shopping with you for holiday decorations so that they are engaged in the process. Or involve them in the process of decorating the house. And once holiday decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can and cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.

3. Have a game plan for when an event becomes overwhelming. For example, if you are having visitors, have a space set aside for the child or adult as his/her safe/calm space. The individual should be taught ahead of time that they should go to their space when feeling overwhelmed. For those who are not at that level of self-management, develop a signal or cue for them to show when they are getting anxious, and prompt them to use the space. For individuals with more significant challenges, practice using this space in a calm manner at various times prior to your guests’ arrival. Take them into the room and engage them in the activities that are most calming for them (i.e., play soft music, rub his/her back, turn down the lights, etc.). Then when you notice the individual becoming anxious, calmly remove him/her from the anxiety-provoking setting immediately and take him/her into the calming environment.

4. If you are traveling for the holidays, prepare in advance and take advantage of resources available for people with special needs. Traveling can be stressful because the crowds, noise and unfamiliar surroundings can be overwhelming. Be sure to bring along your loved ones’ favorite foods, books or toys. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations.

If you are flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring the individual to the airport in advance and help him/her to become accustomed to airports and planes. Miami International Airport, in conjunction with UM-NSU CARD has developed a dress rehearsal program that allows special needs travelers the opportunity to practice the travel experience in a safe and controlled environment. Additionally, the airport has made a social narrative brief available for download at This 26-page, full-color booklet provides a complete narrative with photos of the airport and travel experience from the security process to the boarding, departure and arrival scenarios.

5. Above all, know your loved one with autism. According to the Autism Society it is extremely important to know how much noise and other sensory input they can tolerate. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. If you detect that a situation may be becoming overwhelming, help them find a quiet area in which to regroup. And there may be some situations that you simply avoid (e.g., crowded shopping malls). Know their fears and those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them.

“By taking a few easy steps, the holidays can be enjoyable for the whole family,” Dr. Alessandri said.

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