Fun and Safe Holiday Activities for the Entire Family

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA

[The column was published in the Holbrook Journal Sun on 12/19/20]

Many families have special holiday traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation. Although these traditions add to the joy of the season, it is also important to plan some fun and safe activities that everyone in the family – including children with special needs – can participate in. Listed below are some ideas for activities that all kids will enjoy. Parents, providers, and teachers of children with special needs can use these opportunities to teach or improve upon skills during the holiday season.
Decorating cookies
Who doesn’t like to decorate cookies - or at least eat them? Your child may be able to help make cookies from scratch if he has baking skills. If he has difficulty with baking or has dietary restrictions, he can decorate premade cookies or non-edible ornaments. Suggestions for skills to work on when preparing, baking, and eating cookies include:

  • reading directions to follow a recipe;

  • using a measuring cup;

  • mixing ingredients;

  • stirring ingredients with a spoon;

  • learning about oven safety;

  • identifying colors if using assorted frosting;

  • using a knife to spread frosting; and

  • using a napkin when eating.

Wrapping presents can be fun for your child. If she is able to use scissors, you can put that skill to the test by having her cut around packages. If she is unable to cut, you can cut wrapping paper in advance and have her help you place the tape in appropriate places. A lot of people use gift bags these days. Your child can help put presents in the right-sized gift bag and help pick colored tissue paper to use in the bag. If she is able to write, she can help write recipients’ names on the gift tags and sign her name on the tags for the gifts she is giving. 
Deck the Halls
Decorating the house can get everyone in a celebratory frame of mind. Your child can create holiday artwork that you can display on the refrigerator or on your front door (a lot of houses have magnetic front doors, making it easy to hang artwork).
If there are special or breakable decorations you want to display, make sure they are out of reach of children who haven’t quite acquired the “gentle” skill. When decorating a tree, use ornaments that are safe, durable, and easy to take on and off the tree. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a tree that is just for the kids, and one for adults. Let the kids decorate their tree however they want with whatever they want. The adult tree can be set up in another room (where you may also want to keep the breakable decorations).
Lighten up
If your children have safety awareness skills surrounding the use of candles, then it may be OK to have them help with lighting candles. If they have difficulty understanding safety skills, it may be better to use flameless candles. If you use flameless candles, you can teach your children about “on and off” and practice counting the candles as you light an extinguish them.
Like the rest of us, children with special needs will be better able to experience the joy and meaning of the holidays if they are participants in, not just observers of, special activities. The extra time and patience it requires to include them in holiday traditions will be well worth the effort for you and your children.  
Erica Kearney M.A., LABA, BCBA is Executive Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted at
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601.