Make the Holidays More Fun for Kids with Sensory Issues

. November 1, 2017.

Parties and family gatherings, special food, twinkling lights – what’s not to like about the holidays? Plenty, for kids with autism and other sensory challenges. Many are easily overwhelmed by new sights and sounds.

Spending time with relatives you rarely see, eating unusual food and opening presents is a lot to take in, especially when the celebration goes on for days.

Try these tips to make the holidays more fun for kids with autism and sensory issues.

  1. Get Ready. Read books, watch videos and talk about the holiday well in advance so it’s more familiar.Spend some time looking at pictures of people you’ll see at holiday events. Extended family and friends aren’t strangers to you, but your son may not remember them from last year. The more people he recognizes, the more relaxed he’ll be.
  2. Avoid Food Fights. Special foods are a big part of holidays, but it’s not unusual for children with autism and sensory issues to have specific eating habits or be on a restricted diet.If your daughter is open to trying new foods, make some in advance and see how it goes. If not, bring food and snacks you know she’ll enjoy. Alert the hosts ahead of time so they aren’t surprised and don’t push the issue.
  3. Find a Quiet Space. The energy of holiday gatherings is exciting, but the noise and activity can be too much for kids with autism.Before you go to a party or event, scope out a den or space away from the action where you can take your son if you see signs of anxiety or distress. Having some favorite toys on hand can help soothe him.
  4. Plan for Presents. Many kids get over-stimulated by lots of presents and waiting to open their gifts. One idea is to give your child an especially desirable present right away so she’s occupied with something fun and doesn’t have to wait.If it’s difficult for her to focus on more than one or two things, save gifts and dispense them over the next several days.
  5. Be Realistic. Every parent wants their child to have a wonderful holiday, but it’s helpful to focus on what your child can manage and enjoy.If your child sits at the dinner table for five minutes, greets a distant relative in whatever way he usually says hello or rejoins the party after retreating to a quiet place, that’s a success worth celebrating.

Chasing the perfect holiday is a recipe for stress and disappointment. Try a new definition: The “perfect” holiday is one that works for your child and family.


Editor’s Note: Ian Cohoon is a Board Certified
Behavior Analyst with Ann Arbor’s Autism Home
Support Services.
He also manages AHSS’ Northville Autism Center
and can be reached at