Mother and son Jane and Paddy-Joe share their top tips and tricks for a stress-free holiday season. Jane and Paddy-Joe are contributors to JKP titles  Create a Reward Plan for Your Child with Asperger Syndrome and Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions through Everyday Transitions. In this piece Jane explains her top tips and Paddy-Joe provides a commentary on how a child or young person on the spectrum might feel about the holiday season.

Use visual cues like scripts, signs and sketches to explain the changes happening over the holidays.

Learn all about Christmas with your child.

Help your child get used to all the changes of routine at Christmas time by learning all about the history and origins of the holiday. This will empower them to understand what is going on and why there are some many changes.

Useful hint – create visual cue cards or a wall display. People with autism are visual learners and this will help them engage.

Make a Christmas calendar

Using a large piece of card draw out a calendar December 1st up to the second week in January.  Now you can jot down or doodle all the important dates for example ‘Dad finishes work for Christmas,’ ‘Going to the theatre with Mum,’ ‘Aunty Sally coming to visit’ and so on.  Remember, it’s important to also schedule ‘rest’ days.  On these days Paddy Joe could do whatever he wanted to which usually involved watching films.

Useful hint – it’s a good idea to use pencil or post-it notes so if there’s a change of plan its easy for you and your child to alter the calendar together.

Paddy-Joe: Sometimes you just need a day where you don’t do anything.  This isn’t laziness – it`s just that you need to give your senses time to rest.  It can be kind of hard to tell if somebody needs a rest day because you might think that they haven’t done anything particularly stressful, and that they have been resting, but if they have been getting stressed out with all the changes going on at this time of year they might not be feeling particularly rested.  That is why it is so important to have a day where they can just do whatever they want.  If they just want to sit there and watch films all day then let them. 

Gradually put up the decorations.

Avoid sensory overload and a sudden transition by putting up your Christmas decorations slowly.

Useful hint – If you can get the individual involved with choosing or even making the decorations this may help them to feel more in control.  Don`t be too precious about matching decorations or having the perfect tree, the more involved the individual with autism is the more they are likely to feel in control of their surroundings and less anxious about the changes.

Don’t overwhelm with presents          

At Christmas time we tend to over-indulge our children and even neuro-typical children can get overwhelmed with the amount of presents they receive. To avoid overload and meltdowns think carefully about the present giving element of the day. Perhaps your child will need a quiet private space to open presents away from the noise and excitement.

Useful hint – space out the giving of Christmas gifts, this may mean that you give one present per day for as long as it take.

Be aware of sights, sounds and smells

People with autism are often hypersensitive to sights, sounds and smells; at times it can feel like all the senses are being attacked.  As the food we eat, the programmes we watch and the way we decorate our homes are often very different around Christmas time it is no wonder that individuals who have an ASC experience sensory overload and everything that goes with that. 

Useful hints –

1.       Give the person a sign to show, if they struggle to articulate, to let someone know that they are feeling uncomfortable

2.       It is hard to regulate noise made by siblings, but make sure that grown-ups are aware of the issue of sensory overload, and try not to have people cross-talking or being too loud around the individual with autism.

3.       Encourage the person to wear ear-plugs or to listen to music, this will help to block out unwelcome noises.

4.       If there is a smell that you know the person really likes then try to get this on to a tissue or cloth and then they can hold it close to their nose to block out smells that they don’t like – you can use essential oils such as lavender.

Paddy-Joe: One of my theories about why Christmas is so stressful is that when you are autistic you get used to a certain level of daily impact on your senses – sights, sounds, smells, tastes – but when you go through the transition to Christmas pretty much everything changes when it comes to your senses; everything you see is slightly different, everything you hear is Christmassy, smells and tastes change as well.  This sudden shift in what your senses have to tolerate can often lead to a sensory overload, so for me, when it comes to Christmas, change and sensory overload are linked.

Food, glorious food

It is possible that your loved one who has autism may have a very limited diet or is reluctant to try new foods.  This may well be intensified over the Christmas period when we tend to eat more food and to cook foods that we don`t eat very often – such as sprouts!

Useful hint – Provide a tried and tested meal for the individual on the spectrum. Also, it may be helpful to provide a Christmas-free space for the person to eat in, if they can`t stand the smell of the foods others are eating.


  • Draw a sign for your child to show you if they are starting to feel stressed about more visitors over Christmas (you may have to practise with them beforehand as it can be hard for people with autism to recognise how they are feeling) just draw a Christmas tree and lots of stick people for example.
  • Ensure your child has a safe space to escape to and that they know it is ok for them to do this.
  • Have all visitors check in advance and don`t be afraid to say ‘no’ to visitors.
  • Have a limit on the length of time visitors can stay.

Scripts, signs and sketches

Create visual tools to help your child communicate during this busy time.

Scripts: a short description describing the situation, how they feel now and how they may feel when it is resolved. For example: ‘I feel overwhelmed or upset when there are lots of visitors at Christmas. If I feel like this I can go to my room for some quiet time. This will help me to feel better. Mum will try to help me recognise when I am feeling like this.’

Signs: a hand-drawn sign showing an increase of people visiting the house at Christmas time with a little sentence ‘there may be more visitors at our house over Christmas’ and on the reverse it might say ‘I can go to my room for some quiet time if I need to.’

Sketches: a series of little drawings (just stick people, nothing fancy) to show what may happen if there are more visitors to the house at Christmas time and a reminder of how this may make PJ feel and what he can do about it.

Paddy Joe: Sometimes, if you are doing something that should be fun, you might not notice that your child is starting to become stressed out and overwhelmed – that’s not to say you are bad parent – but it is easy enough to overlook something when you are as busy as you are on Christmas day.  So if your child has got something they can show you, it could really save all of you a lot of trouble and stress.  For this to work properly it is worth practising a few times. 

Don’t force the Christmas you want on your child

One of the most important tips is not to try to force your child to do things your way.  Try to help and encourage them but don’t force them.  These tips will only work if you work with your child and not against them.

Jane McDowell and Paddy-Joe are authors of Create a Reward Plan for Your Child with Asperger Syndrome and Helping Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions through Everyday Transitions both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. They run their own free help and advice service, ASK-PERGERS? Find them on Twitter: Facebook: or read their Blog:

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