Holiday Handbook

November 16, 2017 - Angie Robbins, BCBA and Training Coordinator

Holiday Handbook

By Angie Robbins, BCBA and Training Coordinator

Between families, traveling, gifts and gatherings, the holidays can be stressful and a bit challenging for everybody. No matter what tradition you celebrate – Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan, or Kwanzaa – we all are celebrating the lives of our children and families getting together, acknowledging changes, losses and most importantly love. It’s a time to be close, to give thanks, help the less fortunate and look forward to new comings and a brighter future.

In order to make the holidays easier for you, and your family, here are some tips for getting through the holidays:


Decorations can be fun and festive, but they can also be overwhelming for our children with autism. Bright lights, noises, and breakable items within reach are strenuous for sensory stimulation and curious minds. Try replacing glass or metal decorations with a safer option, like plastic, to prevent breakage that could be harmful to little ones. Also, place decorations higher up to avoid children pulling them down, which puts themselves and the décor at risk. Using dimmers or colorful decorations rather than bright flashing lights can also be helpful for children with sensory issues. Some stores offer “quiet shopping hours” for families of children with autism and other disabilities. Bring headphones, or noise-cancelling earphones, for loud music or crowded areas to help calm your kiddos, making the process more enjoyable for you and them.


Holidays are often surrounded by a variety of fun, new gifts. If you’re shopping for gifts for others, bring preferred toys for your own child to play with to help them pass the time while shopping or waiting. When opening gifts, allow your child time to play with them.  If it’s not a time when he or she can play with them, use a “first___, then___” contingency to help your child understand what needs to be accomplished first prior to getting to play with their new toys. For example, you can say, “First eat your dinner, then you can play with your new batman!” When buying toys for your child, think of what he or she will enjoy most and what their interests are at that time. Let them have fun! Let them be little!


Changes can be demanding and tough for everyone.  As the holidays approach and the days get busy, make a schedule and stick with it! There will always be changes in the typical day, like visiting grandparents, going out of town, and family dinners, but making a schedule for you and your child to go over and keep track of, can be very helpful.

Keep wakeups, bedtimes and mealtimes as consistent as possible to ensure some consistency and structure to the possible chaos. This can help you and your child obtain a better comfort level in the mix of the holiday festivities.  Create a visual calendar that is easily accessible to your child to help them know when and where these changes are happening. Most importantly, provide plenty of reminders with the schedule and changes, so that they are aware and become more comfortable as the events approach. For example, you can say, “Remember, on Thursday we will be driving to see Grandma and Grandpa.”  Planning ahead and sticking to it will help ease your mind, and theirs, making the overall changes less stressful.


Holidays typically also include a lot of traveling, both short and far. Talk to your child about future travel plans. Create visuals, short stories, role play and watch videos about traveling to where you are going, and explain what might be happening there to better prepare them for a big change.  This usually means staying in unfamiliar places like hotels, unfamiliar families’ homes and other locations.  Bring their own pillow, blankets and stuffed animals to help make them feel at home and more comfortable.  Flying can also be another traveling experience that doesn’t have to be scary!  Some airports allow mock boarding procedures that allow you and your child to practice boarding, sitting in your seat and deboarding. Contact airlines and airports to determine options that can benefit you and your family.  Finally, bring lots of toys, games, snacks, comfortable clothing, headphones, chargers and anything your child finds engaging to make the process easier for everyone!


With different diets, allergies, preferences and traditions, family dinners can bring up concerns about food that you may not have in your typical day. If there are foods you want your child to try during the holidays, slowly introduce them to your child well before the dinner arrives. This will allow you to see if your child will eat it, or can grow a liking to these new foods before the big day.  Read stories about food, picky eaters and holiday food types to help introduce these changes and novelties to your child.  Volunteer to make something that meets your child’s dietary needs, and contributes to the family dinner. Bring snacks and other foods that you know your child will eat, just in case if they won’t eat what’s provided.  Encourage your child to try new foods, but remember that it is okay if they eat other foods at dinner.  Dinners are a great time to use “First __, then___” contingences. Those desserts always look appetizing!


Extended Family

Last, but not least, is family. They possess an unending amount of love for their grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, but they don’t always understand behavioral strategies like you do. Take the time to explain current behavior struggles and plans to help prevent unwanted situations. There may be situations like, “He’s crying, so I gave him candy. Now he isn’t crying, so that must have worked!” An extra call, email, or meet in person to explain how you are working through these behaviors and how you would like them to be a part of it, at the future gathering, can go a long way. Thank them for helping and respecting your family’s plan!

Remember to be realistic, be flexible, and most importantly embrace and enjoy time spent with your loved ones during the holidays.

Happy Holidays, from our Cornerstone family to yours!

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November 16, 2017, Angie Robbins, BCBA and Training Coordinator

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