How to Prepare Your Child for Holiday Gatherings

As exciting as the holidays are, they can often be a stressful period for children with autism. Large gatherings with extended family members and other unfamiliar people, places, food and noises can be significant sources of stress for your child as it differs from their daily routines and expectations. As we approach this exciting time of year, here are a few ways you can prepare your child and ease them into these changes so they, too, can enjoy the celebrations and gatherings.

  1. Use Social Stories to prepare them for the events that are to come:

A social story is simply a short “book” that simply and clearly describes the expectations of a particular event or situation for your child. This is something you can create with any type of paper and writing utensil (get creative!) or you can also make one on a computer or device using any of the links below.

Tips for writing and using a social story:

  • Use real pictures of your child, family members, places, etc.
  • Write the story from your child’s point of view (i.e., “This weekend, I am going to Grandma’s house to celebrate Christmas!”).
  • Read it multiple times with your child leading up to the event however, keep the reading times short and sweet and stop if your child begins to get frustrated.
  1. Create an outline for the day or trip:

Creating an outline or schedule for the day can help your child understand expectations and avoid confusion and ensure that nothing is unexpected or upsetting for your child.

  1. Bring toys or activities to occupy your child:

Bringing some toys from home will help create a sense of familiarity and normalcy for your child, in an unfamiliar situation. You may also want to purchase or prepare some novel items or activities to keep your child occupied and have something to look forward to.

  1. Factor in travel time:

If you plan on driving further than usual for a holiday gathering, you may want to consider the following:

  • Plan for frequent stops and bathroom breaks. Leave lots of time to reach your destination!
  • Bring snacks and activities for the ride, both familiar and novel activities!
  • Pack activities that won’t make a mess in your car and that your child can engage in relatively independently.
  1. Have an exit plan:

While we hope that your child will be able to tolerate the duration of the gathering or event, there is a likelihood that it may become too overwhelming for them, and they may hit a breaking point. It is best to have an exit plan in place to remove them from the situation before the behaviour escalates. Some strategies may include:

  • Taking them outside for a walk
  • Taking them for a drive, or just sitting in the car for a while.
  • If you are close enough, consider taking them home to rest.
  • If you are visiting family far away, pre-arrange a quiet room or space where you can take your child to calm down.
  • Have some calming toys or activities prepared ahead of time that will help calm them down.

We hope you find these strategies helpful and enjoy your holiday gatherings and celebrations!


Mackenzie Quain, MpED., BCBA
ACT Learning Centre BCBA, Lead Program Development