Holidays bring joy that warms the hearts of many. For those of us who have children with special needs, the holidays take on an entirely new dimension. Like everyone, we have shopping, cooking, decorating and preparation. However, there are steps we must take to ready our children for the holiday season. Children who have autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and self-regulation difficulties need assistance to navigate the holidays. Here are some strategies to try.


1. Allow children who are overwhelmed by sights and sounds of shopping to stay home. Ensure that the child is comfortable and familiar with the sitter. Allow kids to have a pajama and movie night while you’re shopping.

2. If the children can’t go to the store, purchase a few gift items and set up a “store” at home. We call ours “Santa’s Workshop.” Our boys choose a gift for a relative and then go to the “wrapping station.” Help the kids wrap and decorate gifts with markers or stickers.

3. If a child must attend the shopping trip, schedule downtime or breaks to de-sensitize. This can be done in the car with snacks, a blanket and calming music.

4. Ask children to help you create shopping lists. Permit the child to mark off completed tasks and errands so that he has some control of the situation.


Tree Decorating and Visits with Santa

1. Every year I permit my boys to choose the lights on our tree, colored or white. They love being given the choice. They help decorate the tree, and don’t move items that are clustered together or imperfectly perfect!

2. My older son doesn’t enjoy or feel comfortable seeing someone in costume. He seems to always know that Santa is a “helper” and not the real deal. To make the memory of Santa special, we take younger cousins or neighbors with us. My son enjoys seeing their excitement!

3. If children do agree to see Santa, create a social story with pictures, including Santa’s beard, red suit and the setting in which Santa will be located. Go to the location prior to the visit and watch other children. Practice, practice, practice!


Holiday Parties

1. Give kids a job to do so they have a sense of belonging and success. Even something such as helping to create place markers for seating or setting the table can give kids a feeling of accomplishment.

2. Remember that heavy work is generally calming. Activities such as moving chairs, picking up and placing dirty clothes into a basket and carrying it to the laundry room, or vacuuming are great ways to encourage children to help to prepare for a party.

3. Encourage comfortable clothing and avoid new and scratchy clothing. Family gatherings should be focused on providing fun memories; not appearance.

4. Practice greetings ahead of time. My son does not enjoy hugs, so we practice reaching out his hand for a handshake or high five. Let family and guests know ahead of time that your child shows affection, but in a different way.

5. Consider food allergies and sensitivities. Bring extra “safe” foods that match what others are eating to be sure children feel included. For example, if cousins are eating macaroni and cheese, we prepare my son’s gluten free version and bring it along. Out of respect for the host, talk with her ahead of time and thank her for hospitality.

6. Plan an “out” or an escape plan. Even a short visit that is successful can create memories that last a lifetime! Remind yourself that the holidays are about fun, not stress. Don’t be hard on yourself or your child.


Family Gatherings

1. Utilize relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. Social stories can help with anxiety.

2. Create a “safe-zone” to which the child can go whenever they feel overwhelmed. Set a password or sign that your child can use to excuse himself. Place a bean bag, calming music, a heavy blanket, and favorite hand fidget toy in the area. Practice ahead of time.

3. Use calming scents such as vanilla or lavender. Encourage your child to choose scents prior to the event.

4. Write a letter to relatives prior to family gatherings to explain your child’s wonderful progress toward goals and make suggestions for conversation topics.

5. At mealtime, make sure to serve a preferred food so that children who have feeding difficulties can successfully participate. Encourage positivity during family mealtime.

6. Rehearse names of relatives and match them to their pictures.


With some preparation, rehearsal, and a positive attitude, a successful holiday season is possible. Remember that memories are long-lasting and even short periods of success are welcomed by everyone. Slow down and remember what’s really important this holiday season: your family.


Cara Koscinski, MOT, OTR/L, is the author of “The Pocket Occupational Therapist for Families of Children with Special Needs.” Find information at