Holiday Challenges

The Phoenix Center’s Stress Savers

The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year; however, they can also be extremely stressful. As parent/caregivers of children with special needs, you often face unique challenges during the holiday season. The lights, sounds, and smells combined with the typical hustle and bustle can be overwhelming. Without structure and a routine, anxiety can increase and your child can easily become dis-regulated.

Below are some tips and ideas to help your family enjoy the holiday and focus on what’s important – family time and creating memories together.


Gradually Introduce the Holiday

Preparing your child in advance for holiday gatherings can be very helpful.  Depending on your child’s understanding, you can discuss what to expect (e.g. who will be there, what to bring, what to eat, what to wear), or use a social story/ picture book/video from prior holiday, to show your child what to expect.  To help give your child a sense of time, marking off the days as they pass on the calendar as the event approaches, is recommended.  During school break, sticking to a normal schedule of wake and sleep is best.  If that is not possible and a late night event results in a late bedtime and wake-up, gradually readjusting bedtime by 10-15 minutes to each night helps your child to get back on track.


Create Activities Around Your Child

Choose activities that your child with enjoy, like looking at holiday lights, listening to holiday music and/or baking cookies.  Making foam and sticker ornaments, decorations or cards, can help a child to feel a part of the holiday.  Try not to introduce new activities and don’t stress over the outcome.  Plan one event per day.  It is better to have one successful outing than multiple outings that are difficult.   Online shopping is a convenient alternative, but if taking your child shopping, go at less busy times.  Bring what your child may need to self-regulate (e.g., headphones with music, a baseball cap to decrease visual stimulation, a fidget to hold/manipulate, snacks).


Holiday Gatherings

If your child will be wearing a special outfit, try on the new clothes days in advance of the event.  Eliminate scratchy lace and bows, ties and dress shoes if they cannot be tolerated.  Bringing a change of clothing for comfort, is a good idea.  While some kids might like the novelty of a party, other kids are very overstimulated.  Having a quieter place to go when your child needs a sensory break is important.  If the gathering is held in someone else’s home, explain to the host/hostess ahead of time your need for a quiet space to use.   Bring along a bag of activities for your child depending on his/her interests (e.g., coloring book, game, book, stuffed animal, music).   Keep your child’s sensory needs in mind.  Activity before or after a big meal can prevent a meltdown.  Walking/skipping/running/marching around the block, can be a good outlet for burning off some energy.

Social greetings can be very challenging.  If your child dislikes hugs, teach him to stick his hand out for a handshake instead.  An overly affectionate relative, might need to be told that your child can’t tolerate hugs or kisses.

If your child is a picky eater, be sure to bring along a food that your child likes.  Be aware that if your child does indulge in a sugary dessert, irritability and a change in activity level may occur (e.g., hyperactivity or sluggishness).  A physical activity like stair climbing may be helpful for hyperactive kids.  If staying overnight, bring your child’s pillow, and possibly bedding if your child is very sensitive.  Bring any other bedtime necessity as well (e.g., nightlight, music, books).



Sensory Smart Holiday Tips.  (2014, December).  Retrieved December 7, 2014, from

How Can You Help Your Autism Spectrum Child Sleep Better. (2014, February 5). Retrieved November 1, 2014, from