Helping Children with Autism and Their Families Enjoy the Holidays

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

For many of us, the holiday season is the best time of the year – a time to get together with friends and family and take part in special traditions. Preparing for the holiday season, however, can be stressful for any family. It may be even more stressful for families who have a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or another developmental disability.
Parents of children with ASD and other developmental disabilities can help prepare their children for family traditions by practicing those activities in advance. If your family likes to eat a special meal together at the table, practice before the big day. For each individual child, the challenges may be unique. Some children may not want to see, much less taste, new foods. Some children may not like sitting close to others or being separated from a preferred activity for an extended period of time. 

The practice sessions can be matched to each child’s challenges and strengths. For example, a child can practice saying “no, thank you” when offered a food he (or she) does not like. He can practice requesting to leave the table when he needs to have a short break away. 

Regardless of the target behavior, start small so that you can promote your child’s success early on. When he is routinely successful, add a new challenge. For example, tell your child he needs to first allow the food on his plate, then he can say “no, thank you.” Once your child regularly asks for a break, ask him to sit nicely for 10 seconds before he can get up. Gradually increase your expectations while being careful not to make the task too difficult too quickly. 

For some children, it may be useful to show them a video example of how to engage in the holiday tradition. A video model can be a highly effective teaching tool as it shows a child what is expected of him. For example, if you want to teach your child to take turns when unwrapping gifts (rather than opening gifts all at once), this can be shown in a video. You do not need to be a Hollywood-quality director to use this strategy! Using your smartphone or camera, film a scenario that clearly shows the skills you wish your child to learn. The models in the video do not have to be children. In fact, it may be easier to use adult friends to model as they will be better actors. 

Film your video in the same location where you want your child to demonstrate the skill and with the same materials. This will allow your child to see the desired behaviors in the correct context. Try to minimize all distractions. After watching the video with your child, immediately give him an opportunity to practice. Do not expect an immediate complete transformation, but look for small changes towards your goal. 

As these can be important and difficult tasks for children with autism and developmental disabilities, consider allowing your child to earn a “reward” such as favorite item or activity after he practices his holiday skills with you. This will motivate him to keep trying and keep mastering these skills that will allow him to participate in important family traditions. 

When the big day comes, recognize that you and your child may be happiest with a bit of thoughtful planning and compromise. Your child may not master all the traditions this year, but any progress is important progress. Be proud of those achievements!

By Sarah Frampton, M.A., BCBA, former Director of Skill Acquisition for May Institute. 

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit