Now Reading: “The Autism Holiday Challenge” written by Jené Aviram

“The Autism Holiday Challenge” written by Jené Aviram

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My child suffers from sensory overload during the holiday season. I suffer from emotional overload. We
have a holiday bond. We love it, we hate it, we look forward to it and we dread it. By the time the
holidays are over, we’re totally frazzled and a complete emotional wreck.

Parents of autism spectrum kids have a holiday bond too.

We don’t have time to gossip about Aunt Maggie or figure out what to wear. We’re far too concerned
about location and environment.

“Where are you celebrating this year”? “We’re going to my cousin for dinner. She has a garbage disposal in her sink that Matthew loves”. “Ah! Oh! Dear Me!” Comes the empathetic reply with an understanding nod of the head.

As parents of children with autism, we become more religious during the holiday season. We pray at
every moment. We pray our children will show interest in their gifts. We pray they will behave when
we’re out visiting. We pray they will sit at the dinner table. We pray they will have a good time. We pray
they won’t hit a well meaning aunt as she tries to plant a kiss on their cheek. Most of all, we pray for the
courage and strength to ignore the judgments, well intentioned advice and sympathetic looks from friends
and relatives.

We scout the stores for gifts for our children when we know what they really want. The perfect gift is a
box of “Exemption”. Exemption from crowds, malls and stores. Exemption from smells, noise and strange
food on their plates. Exemption from large gatherings and family occasions. Exemption from chaotic
unstructured days where nothing seems to make sense.

Don’t throw up your hands in despair just yet. These holiday tips will help you sail through
those toughest moments.


The bigger the gathering, the more sensory stimulation your child will have to process. A great strategy is
to turn your child’s attention away from the noise by focusing on something else. Get a money box and
give your child a bag of coins. For each new guest that arrives, let your child put a coin in the box.
Rather than dread each new guest, you will find that your child will look forward for people to arrive. This
way, he gets to put another coin in the box. If the occasion is not at your house, make sure you arrive a
little early so your child can gradually adjust to the increasing noise level as new guests arrive. Make sure
to take the money box and coins with you. The money in the box is for your child to keep. Make sure you
let your child know he can buy whatever he likes and MARK the shopping day on the calendar so he can
look forward to it.


Prepare your child ahead of time. Setting a schedule will help your child know what to expect. A good
example is to say “On Monday we’re going shopping. First we’ll eat breakfast and then we’ll get in the
car. We are going to four stores, then we’ll buy a snack and then we’ll come home”. Be as detailed as
you can. Name the stores and the items you plan to purchase. If possible, get to the store early in the
morning when it’s still relatively quiet. Take a small entertaining toy with you that will hold your child’s
attention. A great idea is a stress ball that lights up when you squeeze it. Buying your child a treat for good behavior is very motivating. It doesn’t have to be big. Noise putty and laser wands produce hours
of entertainment.


Two important skills are learning how to give a gift and accept a gift. Start by teaching your child to
accept a gift. Wrap at least 5 different items. These gifts should be FUN and contain toys your child
enjoys. Examples are “a snake that jumps out of a can”, “light-up maracas” and “neon fans”. Give your
child the first gift and use visual or written prompts which demonstrate “Thank you”, “opening a gift” and
proclaiming appreciation such as “Wow, this is great!” Teach as many times as necessary but make sure
the gifts are unique and entertaining to your child. Use a similar strategy when teaching your child to give
a gift. Visual or written prompts should demonstrate “This is for you” and “You’re welcome”. Make sure
gifts contain fun items as this will encourage your child to remain present when the recipient is opening
the gift. Practice with a sibling or another parent. Teach your child give the gift and use the correct
responses such as “You’re welcome”.


How long should my child stay at the dinner table? This is a common question among parents of children
on the spectrum. The dinner table is often one of the most stressful parts of social gatherings. First of
all, there is “meltdown fear”. If a child chooses this time to have a meltdown, it will certainly be one of
the main events of the evening. If a child is unable to stay at the table but has a tendency to place
himself in dangerous situations or wreak havoc in someone’s house, it’s impossible to relax and enjoy a
meal. Invariably, parents have to take turns to ensure their child is safe. Try some of these helpful tips
for a more relaxed evening. If your child is a picky eater, this is probably not a good time to encourage
him to try new foods. Let him eat foods he is comfortable with and don’t put anything on his plate that
bothers him. If your child refuses to eat anything, that’s OK too. He’ll probably make up for it when he
gets home or perhaps the next day. If your child is doing a great job staying at the table but needs a
break, use a timer. Set the timer for 5 minutes. When the timer rings, guide your child back to the table.
Encourage your child to remain at the table for about fifteen minutes before the next break. If your child
is very resistant to being at the dinner table, try using small toys that can be kept on your child’s lap.
Some examples are action figures, small cars or simple objects that your child enjoys touching and
playing with. This will help direct your child’s focus on the toys, rather than concentrating on staying at
the table.


Go to your regular Church, Synagogue or place of Worship. If you are out of town for the holidays, try
and give your child a brief tour when it’s still relatively quiet. Educate your child about the holidays and
explain the customs. Whether it’s decorating the Christmas tree, lighting a Menorah or any other
tradition, an understanding of the holiday will make your child feel more connected. Write a social story
about religious services so your child is prepared and knows what to expect. The story should contain
elements such as who will be leading the service, who your child will sit with and actions your child will be
expected to perform such as sitting quietly, greeting people or singing. The story should define when you
will be leaving so your child knows there is a finite end. Take along small, non-distracting toys to keep
your child occupied. During services empower your child by allowing him to make decisions. For example
when your child is expected to sit quietly you could say “We have to be quiet now. Would you like to read
your book or play with your Zoo Benders?”


One of the hardest things parents face are the perceptions that others have about their children. They
cringe when people stare at their children or make comments within their child’s earshot. While it may
appear that children on the spectrum aren’t paying attention, they’re usually taking it all in and parents
are afraid for their child’s self esteem. If you notice this happening, stand in the way of your child and the
stares. Direct his attention so that he can focus on something specific rather than the comments around
him. Because people care so much, they regularly offer advice. While this is well intentioned, parents of
autism spectrum kids are tired of receiving advice from people who often have very little understanding
about autism. While it’s tempting to give that person a mouthful, try this strategy instead. Imagine their
advice written on a piece of paper. See yourself tearing up the piece of paper into little bits and dropping
it on the floor. Stomp on the paper, crushing it beneath your feet. As you smile in satisfaction, a big gust
of wind blows the bits of paper out the window and the advice is gone. Judgmental comments are
sometimes harder to bear and many parent with autism spectrum kids have heard statements like “You
should discipline your kids”, “No child of mine would get away with that” and “You shouldn’t let your child
behave that way”. If the comments continue and you absolutely can’t refrain from replying try responding
with “I totally get where you’re coming from because I used to think exactly the same way. Now that I
actually have a child with special needs, I’m far more enlightened. I’ve learned that strategies for typical
children simply don’t apply to my child. However, I’m sure you have the best of intentions and I thank
you for your concern.”


Don’t forget – it’s your holiday too! While you’re so busy taking care of everybody else, make sure you
make the time to enjoy yourself. Having a child on the spectrum has given you a more stressful life than
you anticipated. This year you’ve taken care of your children, spent time in meetings, read IEP’s,
communicated with teachers and therapists and learned about new services. You’ve also had to take care
of your “regular life”. Just like the rest of us, you felt great about yourself when you were being proactive
and you felt awful when you thought you could be doing more. That’s how it is when you’re the parent of
an autism spectrum child. Well it’s time for you to kick back and relax. If your child needs constant
supervision, accept help from nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Designate specific times for you and
your spouse to take turns watching your child. This way, you know where you stand. As an example, you
will eagerly look forward to 7:00pm because for the next hour you’re free to relax and spend time chatting
with friends and family. Make the most of this holiday because you deserve the break.

Written by Jené Aviram

Your friends at Natural Learning Concepts would personally like to wish you and your family a
safe and happy holiday filled with love, laughter and joy.

This article is property of and copyright © 2003-2011 Jené Aviram of Natural Learning Concepts. Reference of this
article may only be included in your documentation provided that reference is made to the owner – Jené Aviram and a
reference to this site
Jené is an accomplished author and developer of education materials for children with autism and special needs. She
is a co-founder of Natural Learning Concepts, a leading manufacturer for special education materials and autism
products. Visit the Natural Learning Concepts website at or call (800) 823-3430 

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  If you’re gonna shop Amazon anyway, can I ask that you enter Amazon by using the search box above?  This way I can make a little money.  This blogging thing has been awesome & life changing for me… but I must admit that it’s taking up a lot more time than I ever thought… so if I can make a few bucks it’ll make it easier for me to justify….Love you all! Thanks!!


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Written by

Frank Campagna

I’m a 48 year old neurotypical dad with a 14 year old son with severe, non-verbal autism & epilepsy. I created this blog to rant about autism & epilepsy while celebrating my son who I affectionately call “the king” :-).

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One Person Reply to ““The Autism Holiday Challenge” written by Jené Aviram”

  1. Anonymous

    I just stay home it's easier. My family feel my child is to high maintance to deal with and yes I love him but they don't feel I should expect others to except him on his terms, they have made it clear that he cannot and will not walk around their home and eat,they will not allow him to take things from their kids or allow him to hit them. (in their words)they want move things out of reach saying whatever he break I will pay for. That I should stop looking for special treatment for him just because he have asd. Also I double talk like he's a lovin child but yet he beat on me,that he should not be in public school with gen.ed students but not having to live by the rules they do. I hear it all, they said the law allow me to bully the staff @ school like it was their fault that I have to deal with this,they feel sorry for them being that this is force on them as if the school is a mental ward because there is no place else to place him and I'm allow to bully them but I can't bully family an the public into excepting this as the norm.Plus if I don't believe what they say why do I keep sending him to them every day. Yes I stay home.