It’s the most wonderful time of the year! There are lights everywhere, people are crowding stores to find the perfect gifts for their loved ones, there are cookies to bake, family to visit and holiday cheer all around. I’m not kidding at all — I would love if we could make “Christmas season” last all year round. That being said, Christmas can also be an extremely difficult time for kids and adults with autism. There are lots of aspects of the holiday that don’t make for a very autism-friendly Christmas.

The lights, smells, crowds and all of the things that we love about Christmas can be extremely overwhelming to someone who struggles with sensory input. Even something as simple as visiting family for Christmas dinner can be overstimulating and downright painful to someone with autism. So what should we do? Hiding away from November to January isn’t really an option, and we shouldn’t take away the joy and celebration of Christmas just because it’s hard for our kids to participate like others.

This is where hosting an autism-friendly Christmas comes in! This post will be especially helpful to family members who aren’t quite sure how to help a child with autism who will be visiting them for the holiday. It can be really difficult for extended family to understand the complexities of autism. They honestly want to make the kids in their family feel comfortable and safe, but it can be hard to know how to do that practically. That’s why I decided to put together this handy little guide to an autism-friendly Christmas.

First things first: ask ahead.

This one is probably the most important suggestion in this entire post. Ask the parents, or the child if you’re able, how you can help them with the holiday. Maybe they need to arrive before everyone else to transition into the new environment before there are crowds of people there. Maybe they need you to take pictures of different areas of your home so they can explain them to their child ahead of time. The possibilities are really endless. Mothers with autistic kids will come up with the most creative ways to help their child have the best possible time. Trust me: just ask her and she’ll have a few suggestions for your autism-friendly Christmas.

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Consider the food.

With my son, one of the biggest struggles of going somewhere else during the holidays is making sure there will be something he can eat. Veggies are out, and noodles, mashed potatoes are petrifying, the only acceptable meat is frozen chicken nuggets and he’s hungry all the time. That doesn’t make it easy to head to families’ houses for the holidays. We bring lots of snacks (crackers, chips, etc.) and we try to find him something from the meal he can tolerate, which is often rolls.

Now, I can’t tell you what foods will be considered “safe” for your family member with autism, so go back to point one and ask ahead! I know preparing the food is one of the most stressful parts of hosting Christmas, and we don’t want to put more of a burden on you. That said, hosting an autism-friendly Christmas could be as simple as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or microwaving some chicken nuggets. Trust me, your family members will appreciate the effort!

Be flexible with expectations.

We often have expectations of how the holidays will go that we don’t even stop to think about. The kids will get there and give hugs and kisses to all the grandmas and grandpas and aunties and uncles, then they’ll run off and start happily playing with their cousins. When it’s time to open presents there will be tons of excitement and joy as the kids all happily rip off the paper to see what goodies are inside.

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These expectations may be way off base when you’re considering a child with autism. Letting a child with autism set the pace for certain interactions is going to mean less meltdowns and less headache for everyone. Maybe they’ll give high fives to family instead of a hug, or maybe they just need their space. Try to be OK with whatever way they show affection, or even if you can’t tell they’re showing it at all. Opening presents in a house full of excited kids can be oversimulating for everyone, let alone kids with autism. Your autism-friendly Christmas may include the child opening presents one at a time slowly over the night and not in one chaotic free-for-all.

Have a sensory retreat.

I am not suggesting that you have a full-blown sensory room prepared for your family member with autism to hide away in, though that would be awesome! But designating a space where the kid can hide away for a bit and regulate his sensory system is vital for having a happy, autism-friendly Christmas.

Maybe this simply means that you close off your bedroom so they have a quiet space to themselves when they get overwhelmed. Maybe you set up a quick sensory bin to help them calm down. Even something as simple as a comfy chair away from the chaos with a phone and some headphones can help a child with autism calm down and enjoy the holiday. Again, just ask the parents or the child what they think will help. They’ll probably even bring along a weighted blanket or some noise-canceling headphones to help out.

Explain autism to other family members (especially kids).

Autism isn’t always the easiest thing to understand. First off, it is a huge spectrum, so it’s hard to know what to expect. Maybe your family member will only struggle to make eye contact, or maybe they’re completely nonverbal. Either way, it’s still autism.

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It can also be really difficult for kids to understand because kids tend to think in black and white. Often, other kids in the family will think the child with autism is being favored or is simply naughty. It’s really important to explain to kids in an age-appropriate way that their cousin’s brain works differently, so they can’t always do things the same way other kids can. Sometimes they don’t share toys, sometimes they don’t eat the same foods and sometimes they don’t answer questions. All of that is OK because we’re all different, and that’s what makes us special. Trust me, you’ll end plenty of fights by helping the other kids understand why one of them gets chicken nuggets while they have to eat their veggies!

Overall, be loving.

Having an autism-friendly Christmas can seem difficult, but the changes needed will have a small impact on the host. They will have a huge impact, however, for a child with autism and their family. We often spend half of our family holidays apologizing for one thing or another, handling meltdowns or intervening in arguments. The other half is spent trying to enjoy our holiday (and maybe grab a bite to eat) while stressing about when we will need to start apologizing, handling and intervening again. Making some small changes and putting forth a bit of effort into hosting an autism-friendly Christmas is one of the best ways to show your family that you care this year.

Let them know you love your family member with autism and want to help however you can. To me, that’s the spirit of Christmas.

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