Tips on making holidays special and stress-free


While special needs children may require more efforts to keep them stress-free during the holiday season, people of all ages with or without special needs might  find stress reduceres in at least some of Julie Martin's tips for planning ahead.

Create a visual calendar with pictures representing special events and time off school.  Special events may include visitors coming to the house, decorating for the holidays, traveling, and visiting family and friends. Anything that changes in the daily or weekly routine is helpful to incorporate into this calendar.  Pictures can be found in Google images, Boardmaker software, newspaper clippings, drawings or personal photographs.  Be sure to cross off each day when it has passed.

Create activity schedules for special events, especially things that include multiple outings and times of waiting (i.e. go to see Santa and then go to Aunt Sally's house).  Do this by writing a checklist or using pictures to represent the sequence of events (drawings, photos).  Be sure to include a way to check off when the activity is completed.  If possible, use a timer on a phone or watch for things that include waiting or a dedicated amount of time.

Opening presents can be the most exciting part of the holidays, yet all of the excitement can be an assault on the sensory system for some individuals.  Try to find some fun ways to bring structure to gift opening (i.e. take turns by pulling names out of Santa's hat) and have a safe place in the room (i.e. a pillow fort or a tent) where the child can comfortably participate. Most importantly, be aware of signs of stress from your child and give them a choice to remove themselves to a less stimulating activity.

Share information by creating an "About Me" worksheet with your child.  Include things your child likes and dislikes (this is helpful for gift ideas), things that are funny, and even things that are upsetting.  Send the completed sheets to relatives and friends who will be part of holiday celebrations.  You and your child can also use the same sheets to learn about members of the family (include pictures) so your child can become familiarized with them before the visit.

Structure down time with activities and events that are special needs-friendly.  Many holiday preparation activities can easily become a structured learning opportunity such as baking cookies, wrapping presents, and decorating Christmas cards or envelopes.

Julie Martin, M.A. CCC-SLP/L, BCBA, Center Director of Burr Ridge's By Your Side, which provides applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy and occupational therapy to children, teenagers and adults with autism.



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