By Dawn M. Turnage, PhD, DNP

Dr. Dawn Turnage is a PhD and DNP and Lecturer at the University of Central Florida. She is an autism researcher and advocate and is the current Chair of the Board of Trustees for United for Autism.

November 22, 2021

Autism and the Holidays

The holidays are quickly approaching, and calendars are filling with events and get-togethers. This time of the year is full of crowds, parties, and bright decorations. We gather and play music and have lively conversations. We eat foods that we don’t normally eat every day. We attend special events. We see friends and family that we may not have seen in a long time. We wear new, fancy, and often not-the-most-comfortable clothing. We stand still for pictures. There is an unusual amount of hugging. There are also changes in routine with breaks in school, work, or the normal day-to-day activities.

While the atmosphere is festive, for some autistic people, all these changes and demands might trigger feelings of stress and anxiety.

1. It is ok to simplify the season.

This might mean having fewer decorations, less gifts, smaller get-togethers, parties that have a shorter time frame, and/or less food choices. Any one of these things can be stress-inducing and dealing with them all together may lead to sensory overload. Limiting these things may contribute to a calmer gathering.

2. People like to be invited, but they may choose not to come.

Support your autistic friends and families with an autistic child by offering an invitation but understand that social get-togethers may be stress-inducing. The act of extending an invitation indicates that you include that person or that family. Likewise, if you are an autistic individual, you do not need to accept every invitation. You can thank friends or family for the invite and politely decline.

3. Know what can trigger a meltdown.

Meltdowns can have signs that occur before the actual meltdown. It is important to know and recognize these signs. Some of these can include agitation, shouting, pacing, repetitive movements or self-injury. If you recognize these signs in yourself or if you see these signs in someone you are caring for, you can find a quiet and safe place to limit sensory overload. You can also use activities or items that soothe, like stimming, using headphones to limit noise, or using a preferred item like a blanket. Encouraging breaks or knowing when to take a break for yourself may prevent a meltdown.

4. Create a social story or schedule.

Autistic individuals thrive on routine and scheduling. Creating a schedule for an event might ease anxiety and fear of the unexpected. Talk about the time the event will start and end. Talk about the activities that will occur. Talk about any waiting times or transitions from one place to the next. You can also talk about who will be attending. If you are caring for a child who will meet new family or friends, showing pictures ahead of time may be helpful. If you are going to a new place, you can use pictures from the internet to describe that place ahead of time.

5. Different is OK.

Recognize that the holidays may look different for each family and that is ok. Find ways to include autistic individuals without overwhelming them. Remember that the holidays are a celebration of family and togetherness, but that looks different for everyone. There is no right way to enjoy the season.

Share the ways that you and your family make the holidays special!

Add your comments below and tell us what keeps your holiday celebrations calm and what makes them special.


  1. John LeSieur 22.11.21

    Thank you Dr. Turnage… I love it!

  2. Thomas f Hassell 23.11.21

    very good points Dawn for children and individuals on the spectrum during the holiday season

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