Holiday Do’s and Don’ts for Children on the Autism Spectrum: Planning for Santa, Gifts and Parties

July 18, 2014 at 6:30 AM Leave a comment

Family Opening Christmas Present In Front Of Tree

This time of year always seems to crop up ever too quickly and starts to bustle with parties and festivities. We all want to enjoy the holidays with happy kids and parents of children who are on the autism spectrum are no exception. Here are some ideas and a touch of inspiration to help the celebrations run smoothly and make the holidays joyful for everyone.

Don’t expect a child who has limited social skills to jump on Santa’s lap, pose for a photo and whisper into the bearded man’s ear what he would like for Christmas. Intimacy in social situations is not made easier for some kids by the strangeness of this character called Santa, and the bells, lights and festivities may be just too much sensory overload.

Do seek out or recruit a Sort-of-Santa that allows your child to experience the wonder without invading his personal space and intimacy limits. If you have a support group, you might even organize a Santa event just for them. This way  the person in the Santa suit can be appropriately chosen and made aware of the children’s challenges ahead of time and respond accordingly.

Please know however, you can make your own traditions. Letters to Santa are a perfectly acceptable alternative. You can even make your own mail box (a painted box with a slot and US Mail written on it) and bring it out for your own personal holiday ceremony. And don’t forget to send a response from the North Pole as proof the connection was made. Or, if technology is a more comfortable mode, take a gander on iTunes to find the various Letters to Santa apps now available. (I personally am a traditionalist at heart, so I prefer handwritten sentiments!)

Gift Giving
Don’t expect a child to develop empathy just because it’s Christmas. When your child opens up a present from Grandma and gets a pair of pajamas, he may show no response, toss the box aside or come right out and say he doesn’t like them (sometimes relatives just don’t know what toy is appropriate). Even understanding family members can feel bad if they don’t get the right gift or toy.

Do practice the routine with your child of opening a gift, treating it respectfully and then going up to the person and thanking her. This can be something you practice ahead of time to prepare a child for this new situation so he is familiar with what to expect. This may also be a reminder for eye-contact and simple “thanks.”  This is a drill all children could use this time of the year.

Holiday Parties
Don’t just show up at holiday parties and expect the best. If lots of kids are around and being silly and spontaneous, it’s often hard for a child who is on the autism spectrum to assimilate. Parents sometimes feel they have to take the place of a social connector for the kid. What you want to achieve is a balance of making sure your child is comfortable, and has something that he feels secure with to hold and focus on, and enjoying some social time yourself. Remember, your child may not have a need for social connections as much as you do. So realize that you have permission to not bring your children. Keep in mind that the over-stimulation may not be a good experience for them, may overflow into jarring their entire routine, and take time to recover from.

Do your advance work. Maybe your child loves a particular Christmas movie and you can bring it and allow other kids to watch with him or her. Perhaps he or she has a favorite toy or play product like LEGOs to bring from home. You can offer to get everyone involved in a project like making a LEGO-inspired Santa workshop at the North Pole. Put on some Christmas music and let the kids roll. Just make sure there are plenty for the kids to use at the same time without needing to invade personal space or limit quantity.

Make sure you check with the host or hostess of the party to find out ahead of time what is planned and who will be there so you can plan accordingly. Ask if there is a quiet, unused space that your child can retreat to as a safe haven if needed. Get your child settled and check in with him periodically.

Holidays bring joy and fun, but they are also giant diversions from structure and routine. Plan ahead of time to see what festivities, if any, you and your child can handle.

In the meantime, have a glass of eggnog and a pass under the mistletoe, for you deserve to enjoy the sweetness of the holidays as much or more than anyone. Happy Holidays!

This article was written by Ellen Metrick, Director of Industry Relations & Partnerships for the National Lekotek CenterLekotek is a not-for-profit and leading authority on toys and play for children with disabilities. Lekotek is dedicated to providing children of all abilities access to the benefits of play experiences. Visit for a complete listing of toys for children with special needs. Follow us on Facebook!

Source: Your Neighborhood Toy Store, December 02, 2013

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July 2014


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