Making Holiday Shopping More Enjoyable for Children with Special Needs

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Shopping trips during the holiday season can be stressful even for those of us who normally love to shop. Inclement weather, traffic, crowded parking lots and stores, loud music, and bright holiday lights can all have a significant impact on our ability to enjoy the experience. If you have a child with special needs who is easily over-stimulated, holiday shopping can be a major challenge.

However, there are things you can do to help increase the likelihood of a successful outing for both you and your child.

The first step is to determine if the trip is necessary and/or potentially beneficial for your child. There may be times when you feel you must go to the store and you don’t have someone to help out with your child. If this is the case, plan on giving him or her breaks when needed, some rewards for good behavior, and make sure the trip is not too long. Taking a few shorter trips can be more pleasant for both you and your child.

There may be other times when you decide that a shopping trip would be a valuable learning experience for your child. Perhaps this is the year he will be able to experience the joy of giving. If this is the case, a little advanced planning before and extra patience during the shopping outing may pay off in terms of holiday happiness when he is able to give a gift he picked out himself to a special person in his life.

One of the main variables during the holidays for children with disabilities is the increased stimulation just about everywhere you go. It’s generally a louder, brighter, and messier time in public. For some individuals, this may be overwhelming. If your child becomes upset in noisy environments, consider using noise-cancelling headphones. Taking frequent breaks can also help reduce stress. Seek out quiet places such as a bench in the corner or a family bathroom.

Related to this increase in stimulation is a potential decrease in safety. Before heading out, teach your child where to go if she gets lost or separated. And, if she is able, teach her how to ask for help. This can be useful not just in emergency situations, but also to reduce frustration if she needs help finding a particular item. For children who are not ready or able to learn safety skills, consider having them wear a medical ID bracelet in case of an emergency.

Another potential stressor that comes with the season is the need to wait. Waiting for a certain day or event – or even in line at a store - can be difficult and overwhelming for any child. For a child with special needs, it may be helpful to provide a visual such as a calendar that can help him tolerate and understand the wait for big events. Something like a paper countdown chain may be a good way to get him involved and excited while providing clear visual rules. Providing reinforcement, or rewards, for following those rules is always a good way to improve the likelihood that your child will be successful. Remember that you may need to provide more reinforcement in the beginning, and gradually give less over time.

As you are no doubt well aware, the holiday season is stressful for parents, too! Whenever possible, give yourself some time for self-care. If you are taking care of yourself, you will be more available for and patient with your child. Following the above advice may make for a better holiday season for you and your family. However, if you and your child are having excess difficulty at this time despite your best efforts, I recommend contacting a behavior analyst for a consultation.

By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder 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, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601or visit