The holidays are a joyful time of celebration to look forward to. These celebrations often come with changes to routines for many families. For some people with autism spectrum disorder, these changes can cause stress, exhaustion, and sensory overload. To help reduce holiday stress for clients with autism (ASD), be proactive. Plan to address possible sources of stress and to prepare the individual with autism so that they have the tools they need to be as comfortable as possible during the holiday season.

BCBAs are in a unique position to make a positive difference in the lives of people with autism and their families. BCBAs can work with clients and their parents or caregivers to help reduce holiday stress and increase skills that support their clients’ ability to successfully get through and enjoy the holidays.

What Makes the Holidays Challenging for People with Autism?

Sometimes, the traits of autism spectrum disorder, contribute to the stress that people with ASD experience during the holidays. For example, preferring a predictable routine and experiencing anxiety or stress when routines change is common for many people with autism. The holidays often interfere with routines and typical daily schedules.

People with autism also struggle in some ways with social or communication skills. Holidays often involve communicating and interacting with unfamiliar people or people who aren’t a part of the person’s everyday life. This can be stressful for a person with autism.

Additionally, holidays often come with new and excessive sensory input, such as light during Christmas, smells from foods being cooked during the holidays, sounds from songs and excitement, and so on. People with autism can experience sensory overload during the holidays.

Kids (and adults) with autism can experience these challenges on and around any holiday. Many people have family get-togethers for certain holidays. Some families like to go to holiday-themed events in the community, such as parades on Thanksgiving or Fourth of July or trick-or-treating on Halloween. Christmas and Hannukah can involve get-togethers with large groups of people, gift-giving, decorations, music, and more. All holidays have the potential of being stressful for people with autism. With that being said, BCBAs can help their clients to reduce holiday stress and increase enjoyment during the holidays.

Reducing Holiday Stress

There’s not just one way of reducing holiday stress for kids with autism. However, some general recommendations are likely to benefit children if you individualize the recommendation in a way that suits the child’s needs. Let’s explore some recommendations.

Being Familiar with Family Traditions

Helping a child be familiar with their family’s holiday traditions can help prepare them for the upcoming holiday. Parents should inform their kids about the typical activities, events, and routines that the family regularly does during the holiday. Parents might do this by having verbal discussions or by using a calendar to have a visual of when the tradition will occur (such as for attending certain events or activities). Parents might show pictures of past experiences with those traditions, as well. BCBAs can help parents as they share this information with their children.

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Clarify Expectations

Although it is important to be compassionate towards kids particularly when they are stressed or overwhelmed, it can also be helpful to establish and clarify expectations. Help parents to create rules for behaviors and expectations that they have for their child during the holiday. Parents should state these expectations clearly.

In addition to clarifying expectations, help parents to develop a reinforcement plan to increase the likelihood that their child will meet expectations and display appropriate behaviors during the holidays.

Address the Child’s Sensory Experiences

To help reduce the stress a child experiences during the holidays, be sure to address their sensory needs and experiences. Think about what might contribute to the child experiencing sensory overload or overwhelm. Think about whether they tend to have any discomfort or preferences when it comes to all the senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

You can identify the child’s sensory needs and preferences by observing them over a certain period, asking them directly, talking to their parent or caregiver, and completing assessments. Once you have identified this information, help parents or caregivers to make plans to support these sensory experiences – both trying to prevent sensory overload and providing sensory preferences – during the holidays.

Attend to the Child’s Basic Human Needs

Every human has certain needs just for basic survival but that also contribute to better functioning in day-to-day life. By planning to address their child’s basic needs, parents can prevent challenging behavior and increase emotional regulation abilities to some degree. Most of us can relate to how lack of sleep or being hungry can negatively impact our mood and how we interact with others.

The basic human needs to consider include the need for food, the need for quality sleep, the need for exercise or physical activity, and even the need for attention (of course this one will depend on the person as to the type and amount of attention that serves them best).

The holidays often result in less-than-optimal attention being given to basic human needs. Although people often eat during the holidays, they might not eat on a regular schedule or at the times they typically eat meals and snacks.

Kids with autism might not have access to foods they like. They might not be able to eat many, if any, of the foods that are provided at holiday events. For some kids, parents should consider what their kids will eat. If needed, they might pack foods that their child will eat so that they have something to eat during the holiday if they don’t like what is being offered.

BCBAs can help parents figure out a plan for how to effectively plan for and address their child’s basic human needs.

Reducing Holiday Stress for Kids with Autism in ABA Therapy

BCBAs can help kids with autism to find greater joy in the holidays and to experience less stress during these special times of the year. WebABA can help you manage your ABA practice, giving you back time to spend with clients. If you are interested in seeing how WebABA can benefit your practice, register for a free trial today.