Stress-Free Holiday Tips and Toy Recommendations for Families of Children with Autism
By William Frea, Ph.D, BCBA-D
Many families will soon experience an increased level of holiday-related anxiety stemming from more than just the usual demands of shopping, cooking, and decorating. The holidays can be stressful for any family, but particularly so for families living with autism. There are unfamiliar social situations, changes in routine and unstructured time off from school, all of which can be stressful and over-stimulating for a child on the autism spectrum. However, there are practical strategies parents can use to lessen children’s anxiety and increase everyone’s enjoyment of the holidays. Suggestions include:
- Decorate the house in gradual stages and allow your child to interact with the decorations, especially flashing lights or musical decorations, which can be disturbing to some children.
- Avoid crowded malls and last minute shopping.
- Wait until just before the holiday to set out gifts. If you put gifts under the Christmas tree, prepare well ahead of time by teaching that gifts are not to be opened without the family there. Practice by giving your child a wrapped box and a reward for keeping it intact.
- When opening gifts as a family, try to pass around an ornament to signal whose turn it is to open the next gift. This will help alleviate disorganization and the frustration of waiting.
- Prepare siblings and young relatives to share their new gifts with others.
- If necessary, consider giving your child a quiet space to play with his/her own gifts, away from the temptation of grabbing at other children’s toys.
- Families should discuss ways to minimize disruptions to established routines and how to support positive behavior when disruptions happen.
- Try behavior support strategies, such as social stories, to help your child cope with changes in routine. Visual supports can help prepare for more complicated days.
- Use a visual schedule if your family will be celebrating the holidays on more than one day, such as Hanukah, to show when there will be parties/gifts and when there will not.
Another challenge is selecting suitable toys for a child with autism. Here are some recommendations for popular, developmentally appropriate toys for children up to five years of age:
- Large building blocks
- Electronic learning toys
- Puzzles and shape sorters
- Story books
- Dolls and large action figures
- Cause-and-effect toys with lights, sounds and/or music
- Sorting items (counting sets such as fruit and animals, stacking shapes, peg boards)
- Trucks and cars
- Play sets (e.g. kitchen, construction)
- Board games and board books
- Dress up items and beads
- Art supplies (markers, crayons, construction paper, glue, clay)
Parents should remember that every child is unique and responds differently to certain toys, so consider asking your child’s therapist or teacher for toy recommendations before purchasing.
Dr. William Frea is a licensed clinical psychologist and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. He is Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST), a private agency serving children and families throughout Southern California. More parent tips and information about AST’s programs and services can be found on their website at www.autismtherapies.com.