Talk About the Holidays

November 28th, 2015

We know that holiday gatherings can sometimes be very challenging for the families we serve. TACA Volunteers have been known to use their own experiences to help other families have better experiences. We hope these ideas and tips are helpful for your family. If you will be spending a holiday with a family affected by autism, keep reading. Something we hear from families living with autism is “I wish our relatives understood a little more about autism, what we’re dealing with, and how they can help.”

Talk about photos:


  • Get everyone in place before bringing in the child with autism so the child waits the least amount of time.
  • Some children with autism like “selfies”. It can be interesting and self-motivating to see him/herself on the screen.
  • Consider several photos put together in a collage to capture your holiday memories rather than a large group photo.
  • If a photo seems like a failure, keep it. When the child makes progress, you’ll appreciate the comparison next year.

Talk about food:


  • Many children affected by autism follow a strict diet to help their overall health, reduce allergic response, reduce overall inflammation and reduce the severity of their symptoms of autism. Their specific diet needs to be followed every day, including holidays.
  • Will you be hosting a family affected with autism for the holidays? Let the parents know ahead of time what you are serving so that they can find a substitute.
  • Some allergies are so severe that a child cannot be in the same environment as the allergen. If you’re the parent of a child with a severe allergy, contact family members in advance asking if they have any questions about your child’s allergies. If you’re hosting a child with severe allergies, everyone involved will appreciate your effort to eliminate the allergen from your home.
  • If you are willing and able, as a host, to offer to have specific food for the child with allergies, ask for details and ingredient specifics. The ins and outs of an allergen–free diet can be confusing if you are not doing it every day.
  • Consider two tables of food to keep the GFCF food separated.
  • Consider making everything GFCF for all your holiday guests.
  • Family gatherings involving meals are often filled with foods everyone is looking forward to all year. For the child with autism and allergies, consider adding some of their non-allergen favorite foods to their plate.
  • TACA has GFCFSF Holiday recipes on Pinterest:
  • TACA has GFCFSF Holiday recipes online:
  • A child’s specific diet can take time to for him/her to understand and learn. The child may not be ready to be around some of the foods which aren’t allowed on his/her diet. Be willing to leave out a food that could cause a tantrum, just for the day.
  • For large family gatherings or large events among people unfamiliar with the child’s food allergies, a t-shirt or cap with clear wording of “I have food allergies” may be an option to consider.
  • Even with all the planning, dietary infractions can happen. Have supplements and treatments ready in case they’re needed. Should there be an accidental dietary infraction check out TACA’s way to deal with this outcome:

Talk about planning:

  • A child with autism may have great comfort with feeling they are in control of a situation. Include him in as much as possible, and as much as she’s able. Passing out gifts, putting dishes on the table, greeting people at the door, drying dishes and many more activities can be broken down into simple steps for a child to complete.
  • Have a schedule and follow it. Add breaks for your child long before she will need them.
  • Have snacks ready ahead of time. A hungry child will not be happy.
  • Talk to the child’s teacher ahead of time and find out any schedule changes leading up to the winter break. Help the child prepare for these changes at home.
  • Children with autism need breaks. Teach the child how to recognize he needs a break and how to tell caregivers/teachers. For children who are nonverbal, use a small card that she can hand someone letting them know she needs a break. Remind everyone that a break is needed before it’s obvious. Once a child starts to lose control, the best timing for a sensory break or rest has passed.

Talk about gifts:


  • Consider the child’s interest, keeping in mind their developmental age. If the child has an interest in trains, they may not be able to read the age level book on that subject.
  • Spread the word among other friends and relatives that your child is saving up for a needed item. Some children need iPads or tablets to help with speech and communication. Perhaps a family membership to a local zoo or amusement park is more useful than the latest cool toy. Gift certificates to restaurants that can accommodate dietary needs are great.
  • An offer of babysitting, if you are willing, would be an amazing gift for the parents.
  • Be willing to let go of the element of surprise. Children with autism may need to be prepped about wrapped gifts. They have trouble not knowing what is in that shiny box.
  • Children with autism may be more interested in the unwrapping process, and not really interested in the actual gift. In this case, consider several inexpensive toys and wrap them all separately so they have the thrill of opening several items. Sometimes putting a diet-friendly treat, like a Starburst or a lollipop in with the gift helps the child react with delight and surprise. It helps them to experience the joy of the process if not that interested in gifts in general.
  • Children with autism are always working on their next goal or working to overcome a challenge. Consider a gift to help with these goals and challenges. Be a part of the child’s next accomplishment.
  • Sensory gifts are a great option for children with autism. Swings, tunnels, beanbags, flashlights, scented markers/pencils, trampolines, and musical instruments are all potential options depending on the child’s sensory needs.
  • Keep in mind, and remind others, to not take it personally if the child shows no interest in the gift given. It may be something that they will come to treasure at a later date.
  • Use social stories to explain how to open gifts. Practice the social story in advance. Practice opening small gifts in advance of your family gathering or holiday party.
  • Consider a gift from TACA. Shop for TACA branded items for the child and support an organization that helps him/her and their family. Consider making a donation to TACA in honor of the child with autism.
  • If surprises are a problem for your child with autism, tell him what is in the package before he opens it.  This can be especially hard at school parties when kids bring gifts for a boy or a gift for a girl and exchange among the class.  It could turn out to be something to which your child is allergic. Consider buying a gift for the exchange but buy it for your child and make sure it’s designated for him during the class party.  And if helpful, tell him what to expect the present to be.

Talk about noise:

  • Children with autism may have sensory issues with texture, sounds, smells and more. Consider wrapping presents in fabric and ribbon instead of paper. It’s recyclable each year and won’t overwhelm a child who shies away from noise.
  • Do a little leg work beforehand about possible challenges relating to noise. Ask mom or dad about possible issues and what can be done to minimize them. If you’ll be hosting, find out ahead of time what you can offer to help reduce sensory overload for the child with autism.
  • Sensory Issues are common for children with autism. Hugs can be craved or they can be a trigger for sensory overload resulting in a meltdown. Hugs aren’t the only way to show affection. Ask about fist bumps and high fives.
  • Consider multiple tables for a group meal. It may be better for noise control and to help avoid sensory overload.
  • Designate a “quiet room” if that might help. Put a sign up on one of the bedroom doors in the house that says “Timothy’s Quiet Room” and let everyone know if the door is closed, that’s when Timothy needs some quiet time.
  • Be willing not to take it personally. Some kids don’t like it when people sing, even if you are Celine Dion.
  • Some kids need sensory seeking activities, like pillows piled up on the floor they can crash into, or an area for them to run and jump around.
    • Each child with autism is very different. If you want to help, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Parents and caregivers will be so thankful that you cared enough to try to make the holiday enjoyable for everyone.


  • Earplugs can offer a relief to a child with autism. Noise canceling headphones are also a great option to have available. Custom earplugs can be made for children so they go in place easily and fit well.

Talk about traveling:

  • Put some of your child’s favorite books, toys and movies away for the couple of weeks leading up to your travel. Bring them back out for your trip.
  • While traveling, be sure to ration the toys, books and games for your child. Keep everything tucked away until the items are brought out one at a time.
  • If packing things into a suitcase will be difficult for your child on the day of travel, practice ahead of time.
  • Use social stories to help your child know what to expect. Keep everything basic and clear.
  • Bring TACA’s ‘My Child Has Autism’ cards so that you can have a quick and easy hand-out to explain a little bit about autism to help increase awareness and understanding.
  • Show pictures of the airport and talk about your travel plans with your child.
  • Bring your child’s favorite snacks for travel.
  • Are you hosting a family affected by autism? Send a few photos ahead of time to the family so they can help prepare the child with autism. Do you have something in your house you know the child will be excited about? Send a photo and let him/her know you’re looking forward to spending time together.

Talk about Santa:

TACA Santa Hudson Crying

  • TACA hosts a Santa event every year especially for families living with autism. This helps ensure that Santa is prepared ahead of time for a child who may not be able to sit on his lap, or need extra time. Ask your TACA chapter or other local organizations if they know of a Santa event specifically for children with special needs. If a special event isn’t an option, connect with other families and ask a local Santa event if they would consider an earlier or later hour for families with special needs.
  • Use social stories to help the child prepare.
  • Consider bringing a letter so the child has something to give to Santa. This helps the child know what to expect.

Talk about giving:

  • Families affected by autism often have many teachers, caregivers and therapists who are a part of their child’s life. The holidays are a great time to show appreciation with a gift if families are able.
  • Gift cards are a great idea for therapists and teachers. Add a handwritten note signed by your child.
  • Consider a theme gift such as a popcorn bowl with popcorn, a movie and blanket. A homemade gift such as a muffin tin with muffins baked makes a great gift.
  • Write a letter of appreciation, frame it and wrap it up as a gift. Families affected by autism are often incredibly appreciative of their child’s teachers and therapists but aren’t able to take the time to truly let them know.
  • Shop on the TACA website. Let your gift recipients know that the purchase of their gift also supports a great organization that helps your family.

Talk about safety:

  • Place locks on doors so that a child cannot wander outside unbeknownst to parents.
  • Place doorchimes on doors so that everyone knows when a door has been opened.
  • Children with autism are drawn to water when wandering. If you will be near a pool or body of water, take extra precaution for the child with autism.
  • Keep in mind that when more adults are together, it can be assumed that someone else is watching the child with autism. Designate someone to have their eyes watching the child for a specific time period and then switch to another set of eyes.

Talk about memories:



  • Memories connect families. Traditions are the framework for creating memories. The Norman Rockwell images of family holidays are beautiful, but not realistic for anybody. Be willing to let go of some traditions –you can revisit when the child is able to participate.
  • Create NEW traditions. Just like creating new expectations and goals, it’s important to start new traditions which include everybody.
  • Sometimes you only see your family once a year – it’s our only time to connect and build on our family memories. The function of a family is to expand to include new members. We hope some of these tips will help make it easier to include your family members with special needs. It’s worth the effort.

Talk about rethinking:

If you’re hosting family and friends for holidays, thank you for caring enough to go the extra mile to make an enjoyable holiday that includes everyone. The parents of your family member with autism appreciate this so much. By working together, you can be part of helping the child with special needs feel the love of a wonderful extended family.

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