Helping Adults with Special Needs Prepare for the Holidays

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused


It happens every year. As the beauty and tranquility of autumn begin to fade with the falling leaves, the hustle and bustle of the holiday season begins. And now, the sights, sounds, smells, and expectations of the upcoming Thanksgiving and December holidays are upon us, assailing our senses and filling up our calendars.

For autistic individuals, and those with special needs, this could mean a dramatic change in the activities and outings they experience, which some of them may find challenging. In anticipation of this, there are several strategies family members and caregivers can use to support the men and women in their care and promote a season of joy without seriously disrupting their lives and routines.

  • For caregivers providing support to individuals who live in residential programs (group homes), it is important to be aware of their usual holiday traditions. Collaborate with families to get background information on preferences (Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, etc.) and be sure to provide opportunities for them to decorate accordingly.
  • Encourage participation, whether it’s as a family, or with staff and peers. For those who are not overly interested in participating, offer them the chance to observe and jump in when they are ready. Do not assume that holiday festivities are something they like! They may find additional activities, different foods, and more sounds (laughing and singing, for example) disturbing. Meet them where they are at and encourage them to take things at their own pace. 
  • When venturing into the community for shopping or even general leisure activities, be thoughtful about the time and location of a planned outing. Choosing a day of the week and time of day that are less busy is always a good idea. That may be easier said than done, however. Discussing what the outing may look like in advance can be helpful in preparing the individual. If things start to become too stressful, pay attention to cues of irritability or agitation he or she may exhibit and offer breaks or an opportunity to try again another time. Always provide positive feedback for their successes. 
  • Big family dinners and parties can be challenging for a number of reasons. As with any larger or busier outing, preparation is key. This may come as a verbal discussion about these events, or even a social story with pictures and accompanying explanations. In any case, make sure you are providing enough of the type of information that person may need, ahead of time.
    •  Generally speaking, food is a motivator for a lot of people, individuals with disabilities included. Big spreads of foods and desserts can also create situations that may be overwhelming. Providing support during mealtimes will go a long way. For example, offer two or three choices for preferred foods rather than just saying “No” to additional requests. We all enjoy a little something extra during the holidays, so be considerate of requests without allowing for extreme over-indulgence. 
  • Allow for down time during the holiday season. Make sure there are rest periods built into the holiday routine.
  • After the holidays are over, gently ease into the transition back to school, residential, or day programs by discussing how exciting it will be to see teachers, staff, and peers. Remember that transitioning back to our normal, post-holiday routine is not easy for anyone! Thankfully, the New Year break will allow for a couple of extra days to re-adjust. During this time, promote lots of rest and relaxation while also encouraging family/peer engagement. 

[This column was published in the Lynn Daily Item on November 14, 2022.]

Justin Kelly, M.A., LMHC, was formerly May Institute’s Director of Clinical Services for Eastern Massachusetts Adult Services. 

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit