Written By: Belinda Worley, MS-SLP-CC


The holiday season can be simply amazing. It is a time we share traditions, spend time with our family and friends, and celebrate the joy of the most magical season. Now if you are a parent of a child with autism, you can insert all the belly laughs and tears right here. I can tell you from my 18 years of parenting experiences, that the holiday season is not always filled with sugar plum fairies, excitement, and joy. As a young child, my daughter was indeed scared of the holiday season. Just consider the amount of change that occurs from Thanksgiving until Christmas. My daughter’s biggest complaints were as follows:


– Santa: Emma put tape on our front door with a sign “NO SANTA ALLOWED”. No way she was going to allow a stranger in her house, and she most definitely was not going to tell him her Christmas wish.

– Change: Every single day during the holidays is filled with so much extra excitement, that it is never the normal routine. Each day there are many surprises, parties, games, and places to visit. With each place and event comes rules and routines that are anything, but predictable. Each event has different traditions, and if you have a rule-following child, it is extremely difficult to keep it all straight. Furthermore, each holiday season we put a huge tree in our living room, and we decorate it completely with a star on top too!

– Food: Family gatherings involve food that is typical for the holiday season but may not be a favorite among our short list of foods we will eat. As a young child, the holiday season for us was filled with plates of goldfish, veggie straws, and peanut butter crackers.

– Presents: Not knowing what was inside was a huge problem when given a gift. A bigger problem was when she opened the present and it was a huge obsession, but we had to move on to another gift and another, all the time using good manners amongst the crazy that is having a million cousins opening gifts at the same time. Opening presents meant lots of tears and meltdowns for hours. We would then go to the next house and do it again.

– Ugly Christmas Sweaters: I mean do you want to wear something that is labeled ugly, and most are so itchy too? Emma would proudly explain that she does not ever wear ugly. She most certainly does not wear itchy!

Rest assured my now 18-year-old loves celebrating the holiday season, but it took a lot of tears, visuals, practice, and small victories to get to where we are today. I do not have all the answers, but I have found that parents willing to adapt and try new ideas, and those who refuse to give up, are my very favorite. These are just a few tips that may make this year’s holiday season the best yet for your clients or for you and your family.

Be Optimistic and Realistic: The holiday season does not have to be huge and extravagant. It is okay to say NO and pick and choose what is best for your family. What part of the family traditions will your child be successful? There is no need to make festivities miserable for everyone. If Santa is not your child’s jam, it is okay. Be realistic about the moments that matter most and the ones where your family can make a special memory. What is hard this year might not be hard next, but it is important to be prepared to be flexible and celebrate your small holiday victories. Your victories are not your neighbor’s victories and that is just fine. If you arrive at a holiday event and your child is not successful, it is ok to leave. You tried and should be proud, but sometimes we just cannot predict where and when our child will be comfortable and successful.

We Have to Keep Our Children Safe: When visiting other homes and events, what do you need to take with you to help your child be safe and comfortable? Do they need earplugs, a weighted blanket, or fidgets? Is there anything at the location that would cause distress or might not be safe for your child? Is the location of the event safe? Are there other children present, a home near a busy road, pets, stairs, a pool, a pond, or woods? Do I need to take my food, snacks, and treats for my child? What is going to be served? Is a child sensitive to certain smells and sounds? What is the agenda of the holiday festivities? Will there be a special guest like Santa? I know it might seem like a long list, but each child is different, and we must prepare for all situations if we can.

Practice, Practice: If your child uses a visual support such as a visual schedule, a token board, or another reinforcement system it is more important than ever to keep those visual supports going during the holidays. Take pictures of where you are going and the people you will be visiting. Social stories to prepare your child can be very helpful and they allow your child the opportunity to match faces and situations of which you have already prepared them. Once your child is at the holiday event, be aware that they may need breaks. Many times, moving to a quiet location for a few minutes allows your child the opportunity to “take a break” and then they might be able to return to celebrating with the family. I like to use TIME TIMER to give a visual cue of how long the break will be before we return or maybe a visual cue showing when we will indeed be leaving the event. A visual calendar of all things coming up will allow your child the opportunity to be successful. It is equally important to have a visual calendar to provide visual support and warnings of how many days until school starts back after a long holiday break. In all situations, we warn and practice repeatedly.

Routines are Still Important: Change is inevitable, but routines are so very important. Can you add a splash of the holiday spirit into your typical routine? No matter the location never forgets your visual supports. For many tips, resources, and materials to help children with autism during the holidays visit www.theautismhelper.com. During your home routines, you know the importance of teaching FIRST I WILL and THEN I WILL statements with visuals. If you visit www.autismeducators.com you will find unique activities to us for visual supports and choice boards during the holiday season. Take pictures of the family you will be visiting as well as homes of parties that you attend for your child to practice. You truly cannot prepare too much. It is a lot of work, but in preparing properly, you are providing your child with a chance to be successful with a splash of the holiday spirit.

Have Fun: While your routines are different than others, hear me loud and clear when I say YOU ARE NOT ALONE. The holidays can be hard for all, but you are a rockstar parent who can still find the fun and make magical memories with your child with autism. Some ideas include baking together, doing holiday crafts, driving to look at Christmas lights, letting your child decorate wrapping paper, dancing to holiday music, delivering food, or collecting canned goods for those less fortunate. It is important to be aware of your child’s sensory needs and plan moments and events so that they can be successful and find joy. There is no greater gift than seeing our children happy and enjoying life.

Rest & Reflect: The holidays are exhausting. Take the time for you and your child to rest. Put the time of rest on your visual schedule for both of you. It is so important to teach our children to work hard and play hard, but we need time to recharge. Ask yourself as the caregiver, what went well? Ask your child what went well. What did you enjoy? What am I going to avoid for the rest of my days? Pay attention to both and how your child responds to each situation. Most importantly plan time in this busy holiday season to just rest. WE ALL NEED IT!

The holidays can be hard, but they can be quite magical too. I remember the days of practicing all the above repeatedly. It is truly an autism journey of victories and defeats along the way. We even practiced opening gifts. We would role-play with Emma when opening presents, giving gifts, and taking turns. We practiced what to say to others using kind manners. We even practiced how to respond if what we received was not a “loved” object. At age 16, Emma finally agreed to take her picture with Santa but continued to remind him to not come to her house with gifts. She was so proud of herself for overcoming her fear all on her own and in her own time. They say practice makes perfect and I can tell you we are not a perfect family, but through the years we have grown with Emma realizing what matters most is our time together as a family. Our traditions and time together are now truly magical in our unique way, but Santa is still not allowed in our home during the holidays EVER.

I hope this holiday season is your best yet. I wish your clients, you, and your family all the success and love imaginable. I am the author of the book, An Autism Journey of Hope. It would be the perfect gift for your clients or a friend on the autism journey this holiday season. If you have not taken my 6-hour Live Webinar yet, you can join me for my course, Autism Across the Spectrum, on January 29, 2024. Happy Holidays!


Explore online continuing education courses from Belinda below:

Autism: Across the Spectrum

Identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Early Intervention

Low Budget Therapy Solutions


Visit summit-education.com for more information.