Autism and the Holidays: Sensory Overload


How to prepare children with autism for the holiday season

From last minute shopping trips to holiday parties and  family gatherings, the holiday season is often a stressful time for parents.  But for children with autism spectrum disorder who rely on structure and   routine, the hustle and bustle of the holidays can be extremely unsettling, according  to experts from Bradley Hospital.


This is particularly true for children who also have sensory processing issues and may be overwhelmed by the overabundance of lights, sights, sounds and smells during the holidays. This distress can often impact the entire family.


“Maintaining the current structure and routine for your child may not always be possible during the holidays, but there are ways to help reduce your child’s anxiety while increasing your family’s enjoyment of the holiday season,” says Rowland P. Barrett, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Bradley Hospital.


Barrett says the key to preparing for the inevitable changes that come with the holidays is to provide the child with early cues of what will be taking place. For some, this might require depicting with words or pictures exactly what will and will not occur at each event.


Barrett also offers the following tips for making the holidays more fun for everyone involved:




“If you will be visiting relatives or friends, let the child know in advance where you are going, who will be there when you arrive, what you will do when you are there, and  the time you plan to arrive and leave,” Barrett says. “Follow the same protocol if relatives or friends will be visiting your home. Parents may also want to ensure that a quiet area has been identified where the child with autism can go and relax if the activities become too overwhelming.”

Holiday shopping

Holiday shopping with a child who has autism spectrum disorder may present its own set of challenges, especially when the stores are crowded and noisy. “Make a list that identifies the items you’re shopping for and do not roam the stores trying to decide what to buy,” says Barrett, who adds that keeping the trip short and being organized will help minimize the potential for the child to become overwhelmed and have a “meltdown” in the middle of a store.


Holiday decorations inside the house – including bright and blinking lights, wreaths, trees, candles and stacks of presents – could be areas of concern.  Barrett says parents know best what their child with autism enjoys and at what point things may become overwhelming. However, he adds that parents should not expect higher tolerance simply because it is the holiday season.

Preparing siblings

Since the holidays are a time for the whole family to enjoy together, Barrett says it’s important to make siblings aware of how stressful this season can be for their brother or sister with autism. Before the holiday season begins, he suggests parents take the time to remind children of their sibling’s sensory issues, communication difficulties, low frustration tolerance and likes and dislikes. Parents can then share the family’s strategy for avoiding potential issues and discuss what they will do if their best efforts are unsuccessful.

“We often put pressure on ourselves to make the holidays perfect, which is unrealistic. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that the holidays are a time to cherish one another and the joy of being together,” Barrett advises. “Whether it’s scaling back or starting new traditions, celebrate in a way that makes the most sense for your family and is something that you, your child and the entire family will all enjoy.”


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