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Celebrating a happy holiday season with kids on the autism spectrum

For families raising kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the holidays tend to be full of stress and anxiety. Around this time of year, most of us are planning the menu for a grand Thanksgiving meal and attending numerous holiday parties. However, it is common for kids with ASD to have sensory aversion to certain types and textures of foods, as well as difficulties managing any change in routine. This can make celebrating the holidays quite challenging for families.

Consequently, some families opt out of this hassle by not getting involved in any holiday festivities. But rather than make things easier, this option actually makes people feel isolated. What families really want is for everyone to be able to participate in the holidays together. This article offers advice to make this wish a reality.


Do introduce new foods gradually

The holidays are full of different kinds of food—many items that kids are not used to eating. Because children with ASD are characteristically picky about what they put into their mouths, you should introduce new foods slowly.

Also try to hide unpopular or new foods inside other foods. For example, blenderizing foods can mask both the taste and texture of the new dish. Or try adding the new food to something your kids already like, such as into a milkshake or cookie batter.

Do take kids to the supermarket

Try to spark your child’s interest in new foods by getting him or her involved in grocery shopping. Make a visual shopping list ahead of time. Use a digital camera and use photographs of the actual items your child will need in the store. You can then put these onto a shopping list using Velcro tabs. This special list will help your child shop with you in the store. Start with very simple foods and gradually increase the complexity as time goes on. Besides getting your children to consider other food options, this encourages adaptive behaviors and important community and daily living skills.

Do involve kids in food preparation

Children are often delighted to try foods, which they have been directly involved in preparing. Let them be part of every step. For example, create a set of index cards illustrating how to prepare spaghetti. Put them in the correct order in a notebook or on a metal ring. If a child is not yet reading, create photos of the child getting the spaghetti box out of the pantry, getting the pot out, putting water into the pot, etc.

Do create a visual schedule

Holiday time is difficult for children with ASD due to the lack of structure and multiple transitions. Even though you may just want to spend time spontaneously, parents should consider creating a visual schedule to support their child's awareness of the events taking place. Understanding what will happen at every step will help reduce your child's anxiety.


Do not underestimate the importance of presentation

For some children, varying the way in which food is presented may be the trick. For example, try freezing pureed vegetables into popsicles. This will make them much more interesting to kids.

Do not neglect activities with movement

Create special family memories for everyone in the family through movement. Make time to take walks in your surrounding parks and neighborhood. This time together will create relaxing memories for everyone. Movement is a great way to reduce anxiety and make room for an extra piece of pie.

Do not forget to make special time for typical siblings

Be sure to spend quality time with siblings. If time is tight, take siblings on an errand that you must do anyway. But take them exclusively, so they can have a few moments of your undivided time and attention.

Do not overlook the need to leave kids at home

If you, as a parent, want to take advantage of black Friday shopping specials, go for it. Get a babysitter for your child with ASD so you don't overwhelm him or her with trips to crowded, chaotic shopping malls. This is a recipe for disastrous meltdowns.

Additionally, this respite time gives you a break from your child with special needs. The break will actually provide you with the energy to cope with the demands of the holiday.

Jumping cartoon

Be sure to have fun this holiday with all of the members of your family. Let each one know how much you enjoy their company. Don’t forget to meet kids with ASD at their developmental level, which may mean lowering your expectations of what they will or will not eat. And who knows, this year may be the year of the pumpkin pie popsicle.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: © aboikis -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Esther B. Hess, Ph.D.Developmental Pediatric Psychologist

Esther B. Hess, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and a former member of the board of directors of the Selective Mutism Group. Dr. Hess is also the executive director of Center for the Developing Mind, a multidisciplinary treatment facility...

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