Staying Home for the Holidays; May Institute Offers Tips for Families of Children with Autism.


Millions of Americans traveled during Thanksgiving weekend. How many of them contracted or spread COVID-19? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that infections and deaths continue to rise on a daily basis.

Are those alarming numbers enough to keep people at home for the holidays in December? How can families stay connected with loved ones if they have to practice social distancing – especially families of children with autism?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, have offered some recommendations and advice for planning holiday festivities with safety in mind.

Dr. Fauci encourages families to find new ways to connect this year. While these recommendations are valid for all families, we know that the holidays can be even more challenging for families of children with autism. Below are some suggestions for families looking to help their children experience the 2020 holidays in a safe, engaging manner.

First, plan to take advantage of the plethora of virtual games your family can play on platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, Skype, etc. There are trivia games, variations of charades, even karaoke! You can start by evaluating different online games and activities that your child chooses to participate in and seems to enjoy.

Children may need short doses of regular practice to get the hang of the rules. Those practice sessions can be followed by periods of favorite play activities or online videos. Over time, the play sessions can be extended, and eventually you can invite other family members to join. Remember, games are supposed to be fun! If your child loses interest in a game, find a new activity that holds their interest. Forcing a child with autism to play a game they do not enjoy may only make it harder for them to enjoy it in the future and will take all the joy out of the activity.

Second, you may be able to virtually share indoor holiday activities with loved ones who cannot physically be with you this year. Rather than cooking together in the same kitchen, families can prepare holiday feasts at the same time in different houses. Virtual meeting platforms can enable family chefs in different locations to share recipes and cooking tips, all while maintaining social distance. Grandparents and grandchildren could put together pumpkin pies together (but apart).

Family members could also decorate their holiday tables and then share pictures or videos of the final products. And everyone can still dress up in their holiday best and share snapshots via smartphones and laptops. All of these activities can be used as fun contexts for individuals with autism to practice relevant and practical daily living skills such as cooking, setting the table, and dressing. Having the opportunity to show off your good work and good looks can be very motivating!

Finally, embrace outdoor activities to promote family togetherness and gratitude. Families can bundle up and go on a walk. Collect leaves, interesting rocks, and flowers that could be incorporated into an art project or table décor. During the walk, members of the family can take turns naming something they are grateful for this year. For an extra challenge, try to list one thing for each letter of the alphabet! Some individuals with autism may need help communicating their sources of gratitude in this way. Prompting a response you think they would likely want to express can be a good way to keep them involved. Be assured that if they are walking close to you and smiling, they are grateful for you!

When the big day comes, recognize that you and your child may be happiest with big rewards for small (but meaningful) accomplishments. Trying a new activity or adjusting to a change in routine can be a big deal! Let your child know how proud you are and make sure they get to earn something they enjoy as well.

Above all, keep family togetherness, health, and patience at the heart of your goals for the holidays this year. While we may not be able to be with family in person, do not let this barrier stand in the way of virtually sharing your love and appreciation for one another.

Sarah Frampton, M.A., BCBA, is Director of Clinical Services and Training for May Institute. She can be contacted

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. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit
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