The holidays can be a stressful time of year, especially for those with developmental disabilities or autism spectrum disorder. That’s why we at CA Human Services have developed our help for the holidays guide. The tips below will help you plan holiday events with the needs of your autistic guests in mind. These tips can be applied to neurodiverse individuals no matter their age. We hope our advice will help your family have a happy and stress-free holiday season!
Many individuals with autism prefer to avoid interactions that neurotypicals take for granted. Hugs, kisses, handshakes, and even small talk may be unpleasant for an autistic family member . Ask your family members where their boundaries lie, and communicate with other family members to ensure they understand what is and is not acceptable.
Be aware that your family member may prefer routine over spontaneity. Since holiday events are a significant deviation from routine, try to provide advanced notice on when and where events will occur. If there is a last-minute change in plans, it’s best to communicate this directly, and understand that an autistic family member may need to opt-out of these changes or take a break if the change becomes overwhelming.
Many individuals with autism experience food aversion, sometimes as a result of sensory sensitivity . They may struggle with taste, texture, or even temperature. As you might do for guests with allergies or food intolerances, check with the family member and make sure you are providing foods they can eat.
Holidays are stressful for everyone, even neurotypicals. For young children with autism, the changes and excitement can be particularly overwhelming. To avoid meltdowns or overstimulation, make sure you have comfort items on hand to assist and calm the child.
The holidays inevitably involve some sort of decoration. To ensure sensory needs are accommodated, try to avoid extremely loud or bright decorations which can be overstimulating. It can also be helpful to designate one room of the house as an undecorated zone, where your family member can take a break if the decorations and noise become overwhelming.
This tip is especially helpful for children but can be applied to individuals of all ages. If your family member needs help responding to gift giving, roleplay scenarios and provide potential scripts for accepting gifts. This creates advanced expectations for the individual with autism, and reduces stress and anxiety before the big day.
Even with advanced precautions, it’s still possible your autistic family member will become overwhelmed or burnt out during the event. To prepare for this, it’s helpful to establish an escape route or escape space. This can be anything from taking a walk outside, to providing a guest bedroom away from the common areas where they can rest quietly. As in tip five, it’s helpful to make sure this room doesn’t have overwhelming designs or decorations. If you believe your family member might need an escape, help them communicate this to other event guests to help avoid accusations of rudeness or hurt feelings.
As with food, certain items of clothing can be stressful for individuals with autism due to sensory needs. Formal wear is a particular issue, since it is typically tight, itchy, and complex. Individuals may feel stifled by formal wear, or express themselves best in unique clothing . If you’re able, adopt a relaxed dress code so your family member can spend the holidays in clothes that relieve their stress. If the event must involve formal wear, provide ample notice so your family member can find clothing that meets the dress code without causing them discomfort.
Members of the same family may not all understand autism the same way. While your autistic family member may be happy to provide an explanation of their condition when asked, having to explain themselves while in sensory overload or social exhaustion may become overwhelming. If your autistic family member agrees, reach out to event guests who may be unfamiliar with autism to discuss accommodations they will be expected to provide, and what is/is not okay to say during your holiday event.
No two people are the same, and while individuals with autism may share common traits, everyone has a different perspective and understanding of their diagnosis. The best way to help your family member with autism prepare for an event is to ask them what they need, and take their requests seriously. Communicate with them in advance if there’s anything you’re not sure about, and always be considerate of their perspective and needs, just like you would be for any other guest. This will help keep your holiday season happy, healthy, and stress free!
CA is here if you need assistance with other information or resources for supporting your loved ones with autism. Simply call our toll-free number 800-649-8481, send us an email, or search our resources.
 George Musser, “How ‘Social Touch’ Shapes Autism Traits,” Spectrum News, https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/social-touch-shapes-autism-traits/.
 Lucia Margari et al., “Eating and Mealtime Behaviors in Patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Current Perspectives,” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7504729/.
 Alaina Leary, “How Fashion Helps Me Embrace Being Autistic,” Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fashion-autism#1.