Holidays and autism: Planning a celebration for all

A person with arms raised in a shower of confetti

We love to celebrate special days of the year with bright colours, noisy celebrations and lots of social contact. Malaysians are no exception. But the big changes that holidays bring can be overwhelming or overstimulating for your loved ones with autism. Here is a short guide to ensure your celebrations go as smoothly as possible for everybody.

Get prepared with social stories

People with autism can be easily overwhelmed in brand-new situations. Social stories help them understand what to expect, and the behaviour expected of them.

A social story illustrates situations and problems, and how people deal with them. They help to explain social norms and how to communicate with others appropriately. A social story is also short with realistic pictures, and aims to help a person with autism better understand and/or navigate their world. You can share social stories about celebrations, meeting family, accepting gifts, and so on.

Practice scenarios from your celebrations

Practice opening gifts, taking turns and waiting, and giving gifts with your loved one. If your family gathers and opens gifts together, it’s good to practice what to say or do if your loved ones with autism gets a gift they didn’t want. One way to help with this last point is actively keeping a gift wishlist and distributing them to loved ones.

Keep daily routine as steady as possible

As you prepare your house for a celebration, make small changes, not big ones. Sudden large changes can overwhelm your family member with autism, causing distress or meltdowns. Spread out the preparation over a few days instead of all at once. For example, you might clean a portion of the house today, clean the rest tomorrow, and decorate the living room the day after.

Find safe spaces to wind down

Too much light, sound and crowds can trigger meltdowns. If you are hosting a celebration, prepare a safe space where loved ones with autism can go to calm down. It should be dim and quiet, and set away from the main celebration. Soft music, fidget or stim (stimulation) toys can help to relieve some of the stress. Let your loved ones know what the space is for, take them there at signs of distress, and let other guests know the purpose of this space. 

If you are celebrating with others, ask your host if there is a quiet space you can use if the event becomes overwhelming. Show your loved one with autism where this space is, or how to ask to use it.

Prepare your other family, friends and guests

Enlist the help of whoever else is celebrating with you to ensure a happy celebration for everyone. Share strategies to reduce conflict, encourage participation and reduce behavioral incidents. Tell family members and friends what to expect ahead of time and what might be helpful to do or not do.

Do not use shame or force

Do not force a loved one with autism to interact with others or restrict them from stimming for the sake of a “nice” or “good” celebration. Pushing them in this way can upset them, make it more difficult for them to self-regulate, or trigger meltdowns. Let them participate in your celebrations in a way that’s comfortable for them.


The holidays can be stressful, even without the difficulties that autism can pose. But with some preparation, cooperation and compromise, we can all enjoy holiday celebrations that may be a little different, but a lot more fun for everyone involved.


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Autism Society (2020) Twelve Tips for Helping Individuals with Autism Have a Happy Holiday Season [Accessed: 10 Dec 2020] Available at:

Hands theFamilyHelpNetwork (2020) Autism and the Holidays: Tips for the Holidays from Hands [Accessed: 10 Dec 2020] Available at: 

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