Preparing Children with Autism for the Holidays

Last January, as my husband and I were boxing up the seasonal decor, I noticed him toss in our son’s favorite holiday movies. “Not so fast,” I barely got the words out before the box was taped shut. All year my husband looks forward to breaking those movies out in December. He was hoping to pass this tradition on to our son. However, this is one winter ritual we won’t be continuing, and here is why.

My son is 4 1/2 years old and has ADHD and autism. Last year the holidays were tough. Halloween was especially confusing for him. He didn’t want to wear a costume. He had no idea what trick-or-treating was.  When someone rang the doorbell, he expected they were coming in to play with him. Then when he’d see their costumes, he’d get scared. In true Halloween spirit, it was a nightmare.

Come December, he was completely overwhelmed by the tree and decorations. He didn’t know why that elf kept moving all over the house. He was terrified of Santa. On the big day, he had one of his worse meltdowns ever. Of course, this happened in front of the entire family.

I realized I needed to do things much differently. I needed to proactively prepare him for the holidays, so he knew what to expect. Luckily, I had a few ideas.

For one, I made two bins. One for Halloween toys and one for Christmas toys. In the Halloween bin, I put toy ghosts, witches, jack-o-lanterns, and more. In the Christmas bin were items such as the characters from Rudolph, a small present, and golden tickets from the Polar Express movie. I pulled the bins out throughout the year, and we talked about the holidays while we played with the toys.

We also frequently watched movies, sang songs, and read books about Halloween and Christmas. During play, we dressed in costumes and pretended to trick-or-treat. And I believe over the last year we’ve made at least a hundred play-doh snowmen!

The results thus far have been pretty stellar! Halloween was last week, and he did great! Blues Clues has been a recent favorite show, so he dressed as Steve. Of course, he wore the costume multiple times before the big day. Unlike last year, he was excited to walk the neighborhood and see all the kids’ costumes. And he knocked on each door and said “trick or treat” like he’d been practicing all year because he had!

I can’t report on Christmas yet because it is only November 1st, but we had a great time this morning watching and acting out the Polar Express. He is always the main character, and I get to be Billy. We have the most fun singing and dancing during the Hot Chocolate song! We will be going on a Polar Express themed train in a couple of weeks. I am confident by the time Christmas arrives, he’ll be MORE than prepared!

For most kids, saving the magic until the moment works well. You can build anticipation and excitement and then enjoy their reaction. But for kids with developmental disabilities, that often won’t work. Surprises, disruptions in routines, and new experiences can have a negative effect. By keeping the holiday magic alive year-round, they know what to expect, and the experience is better for everyone!

And who doesn’t enjoy Christmas in July? Or like we do every month of the year!

Find out what works, and do more of that. – Steve de Shazer

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.