November 16, 2022

Ways to help autistic family members during holiday gatherings

Help your family member with autism navigate holiday events and family gatherings with these tips from VedaOT.

Veda Collmer
Ways to help autistic family members during holiday gatherings

The holidays represent a joyous time of the year for many people. We spend time with friends and family, exchanging gifts. There is extra time off from school and work, and delicious holiday treats that come around once a year. Many families have traditional food they make on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or other special holidays.  

With all these traditions comes some high expectations for social interaction. For people living with autism, those social expectations can become a debilitating liability. Time off from school or work throws off routines that many autistic people need to thrive. Seeing friends and family they don’t know well can be overwhelming. More social occasions in large groups occur during the holiday season, which can lead to sensory overload. 

We are offering these five tips to ease those pressures for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. With the right assistance, the holidays can be a great experience for improving social skills and enjoying the festivities. 

Prepare them for change

The holidays provide time off from work, school, and normal activities. While this may give a well-deserved break to you and your family, it can present challenges for autistic people who often prefer routines. Throwing your autistic teen or young adult off the schedule they’re used to without warning can irritate or confuse them. Surprise changes are the most impactful because it gives a person with autism little time to adjust. 

Offset this by giving your teens on your adults as much notice as possible that something is changing in their schedule. Whether it’s a visit to distant relatives or a day off from work or school, making sure they know well in advance will help them adapt. We suggest visual reminders such as a brightly colored note placed prominently in your home, or a clearly marked calendar. In addition, make verbal reminders at regular intervals leading up to the event. 

Plan for overwhelming situations

People with autism easily get overstimulated if there is too much sensory input going on. Loud music, large groups of people talking, bright lights and decorations, hurried movements—all can become visually and auditorily overwhelming. Large family gatherings or holiday parties feature a lot of bright colors, movement, and noise. It’s best to prepare your teen or young adult ahead of time for these situations.  

Make a plan for them to let you know if they need to leave. Make arrangements for them to have a quiet space in your home where they can retreat and do the same if you’re visiting a friend or other family member. 

It’s also wise to make a plan for when they’re not with you, such as at an event with friends. Discuss who they can contact for help. If they’re overwhelmed at a party, carnival or other holiday event. Determine whether they can contact you, a friend or other family member if they need to leave or need calming. This could even be as simple as talking them through a situation over the phone and reminding them of their coping skills such as deep breathing or putting on their headphones to tone down some of the stimulation. 

Use giving gifts as a lesson ininteraction with others 

Autistic people often have obsessive interests. This can make them all too happy to talk about their own passions. But they might also have a lack of awareness that others aren’t as interested in their favorite topics. They can come off as uncaring or self-centered. This makes giving gifts for winter holidays a perfect teaching opportunity to have them focus on the interests and hobbies of others.  

Giving gifts to someone else is a chance for an autistic teen or young adult to think about what the receiver is interested in. It’s a chance to think about someone else’s passions and hobbies without needing to talk about their own. While there’s nothing wrong with strong interests, gift giving is a great lesson in navigating social relationships as a two-way street with consideration for others’ thoughts and feelings. 

Create structure to replace typical routines 

Time off from work or school can leave an autistic teen or young adult irritated and frustrated about how to manage their time. Time that would normally be spent on education or working turns into idle time. This can cause anxiety or other irritation because of disruptions to their normal routine. 

Help alleviate this irritation by adding some structure to your autistic teen or young adult’s extra days off. Give them a schedule for the day with specified times for meals, games, chores and the like. Keep this schedule as consistent as possible from day to day as well. The less variation, the more stable the routine is, which can temporarily replace the normal routine they usually follow. 

Use community events for skills building 

Most communities have holiday events. Whether it’s a winter artisan market to get gifts for those in your life, a carnival or a decoration contest, there’s something for everyone. These events can be a great place for youth on the spectrum to meet others and practice social interaction. Conversing with other people can get them engaged and potentially they can make new friends. It’s also a great chance to practice conversations with other people and acquaint them with societal expectations for social interactions.

 Keep in mind that especially for those with sensory issues, it might be best to stick with events that aren’t overly crowded, noisy or too visually stimulating. This can keep potential overwhelming sensory situations to a minimum and help your teen or young adult enjoy their holiday events as much as possible. 

If you’re feeling more confused than ever on how to help your autistic teen or young adult navigate life transitions, contact us at VedaOT. We are a Scottsdale-based occupational therapy service specializing in helping those with autism learn to interact with the world in a healthy manner. Email,or call (602) 837-4890.

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