Autism and the Holidays

Twelve Tips for Helping Individuals with Autism Have a Happy Holiday Season

While many happily anticipate the coming holiday season, families of people on the autism spectrum also understand the special challenges that may occur when schedules are disrupted and routines broken. Our hope is that by following these few helpful tips, families may lessen the stress of the holiday season and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved. The following tips were developed with input from the Autism Society, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism, Easter Seals Crossroads, the Sonya Ansari Center for Autism at Logan and the Indiana Autism Leadership Network..

1. Preparation is crucial for many individuals. At the same time, it is important to determine how much preparation a specific person may need. For example, if your son or daughter has a tendency to become anxious when anticipating an event that is to occur in the future, you may want to adjust how many days in advance you prepare him or her. Preparation can occur in various ways by using a calendar and marking the dates of various holiday events, or by creating a social story that highlights what will happen at a given event.

2. Decorations around the house may be disruptive for some. It may be helpful to revisit pictures from previous holidays that show decorations in the house. If such a photo book does not exist, use this holiday season to create one. For some it may also be helpful to take them shopping with you for holiday decorations so that they are engaged in the process. Or involve them in the process of decorating the house. And once holiday decorations have been put up, you may need to create rules about those that can and cannot be touched. Be direct, specific and consistent.

3. If a person with autism has difficulty with change, you may want to gradually decorate the house. For example, on the first day, put up the Christmas tree, then on the next day, decorate the tree and so on. And again, engage them as much as possible in this process. It may be helpful to develop a visual schedule or calendar that shows what will be done on each day.

4. If a person with autism begins to obsess about a particular gift or item they want, it may be helpful to be specific and direct about the number of times they can mention the gift. One suggestion is to give them five chips. They are allowed to exchange one chip for five minutes of talking about the desired gift. Also, if you have no intention of purchasing a specific item, it serves no purpose to tell them that maybe they will get the gift. This will only lead to problems in the future. Always choose to be direct and specific about your intentions.

5. Teach them how to leave a situation and/or how to access support when an event becomes overwhelming. For example, if you are having visitors, have a space set aside for the child as his/her safe/calm space. The individual should be taught ahead of time that they should go to their space when feeling overwhelmed. This self-management tool will serve the individual into adulthood. For those who are not at that level of self-management, develop a signal or cue for them to show when they are getting anxious, and prompt them to use the space. For individuals with more significant challenges, practice using this space in a calm manner at various times prior to your guests’ arrival. Take them into the room and engage them in calming activities (e.g., play soft music, rub his/her back, turn down the lights, etc.). Then when you notice the individual becoming anxious, calmly remove him/her from the anxiety-provoking setting immediately and take him/her into the calming environment.

6. If you are traveling for the holidays, make sure you have their favorite foods, books or toys available. Having familiar items readily available can help to calm stressful situations. Also, prepare them via social stories or other communication systems for any unexpected delays in travel. If you are flying for the first time, it may be helpful to bring the individual to the airport in advance and help him/her to become accustomed to airports and planes. Use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying.

7. Know your loved one with autism and how much noise and activity they can tolerate. If you detect that a situation may be becoming overwhelming, help them find a quiet area in which to regroup. And there may be some situations that you simply avoid (e.g., crowded shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving).

8. Prepare a photo album in advance of the relatives and other guests who will be visiting during the holidays. Allow the person with autism access to these photos at all times and also go through the photo album with him/her while talking briefly about each family member.

9. Practice opening gifts, taking turns and waiting for others, and giving gifts. Role play scenarios with your child in preparation for him/her getting a gift they do not want. Talk through this process to avoid embarrassing moments with family members. You might also choose to practice certain religious rituals. Work with a speech language pathologist to construct pages of vocabulary or topic boards that relate to the holidays and family traditions.

10. Prepare family members for strategies to use to minimize anxiety or behavioral incidents, and to enhance participation. Help them to understand if the person with autism prefers to be hugged or not, needs calm discussions or provide other suggestions that will facilitate a smoother holiday season. If the individual becomes upset, it might also be helpful to coach others to remain calm and neutral in an effort to minimize behavioral outbursts.

11. If the person with autism is on special diet, make sure there is food available that he/she can eat. And even if they are not on a special diet, be cautious of the amount of sugar consumed. And try to maintain a sleep and meal routine.

12. Above all, know your loved one with autism. Know how much noise and other sensory input they can take. Know their level of anxiety and the amount of preparation it may take. Know their fears and those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them.

Don’t stress. Plan in advance. And most of all have a wonderful holiday season! Source

Articles for Parents

Great Resource- Thriving During the Holidays

Reducing Holiday Stress for Families of Children with Autism

Holiday Road Trips: Five Tips to Reduce Stress


Preparing for the Holidays with Autism

Dealing with the “Back-to-School” Blues: Tips for Parents of Asperger’s Kids

Back to School with ASD

Social Stories

Visiting Family at Christmas

Going to Visit Santa

What to Expect at Christmas (PowerPoint) edit to meet your needs*

Airplane Trip (good example)


Holiday/Winter Break Social Stories & Visual Supports

Calendar Icons

Christmas Presents A social narrative to help individuals understand social expectations when receiving presents.




Grade Retention


Grade retention or grade repetition is the process of having a student repeat an educational course, usually one previously failed. Students who repeat a course are referred as “repeaters”. Repeaters can be referred to as having been “held back”. Source

A Handout for Educational Professionals.

A common misperception is that giving a student the “gift” of another year in the same grade will allow the child time to mature (academically and socially); however, grade retention has been associated with numerous deleterious outcomes. Without specific targeted interventions, most retained students do not “catch up.”

Research Regarding Retention:

Temporary gains. Research indicates that academic improvements may be observed during the year the student is retained, however, achievement gains typically decline within 2–3 years of retention.

Negative impact on achievement and adjustment. Research has shown that grade retention is associated with negative outcomes in all areas of student achievement (e.g., reading, math, oral and written language) and social and emotional adjustment (e.g., peer relationships, self-esteem, problem behaviors, and attendance).

Negative long-term effects. By adolescence, experiencing grade retention is associated with emotional distress, low self-esteem, poor peer relations, cigarette use, alcohol and drug abuse, early onset of sexual activity, suicidal intentions, and violent behaviors.

Retention and dropout. Students who have been retained are much more likely to drop out of school.

Consequences during adulthood. As adults, individuals who repeated a grade are more likely than adults who did not repeat a grade to be unemployed, living on public assistance, or in prison.

What can educational professionals do to help?

It is imperative that we implement effective strategies that enable at-risk students to succeed. Addressing problems early improves chances for success. Consider the following:

• Identify the unique strengths and needs of the student.

• Implement effective research-based teaching strategies (e.g., Preschool Programs, Access to School-Wide Evidence-Based Programs, Summer School and After School Programs, Looping and Multi-Aged Classrooms, School-Based Mental Health Programs, Parental Involvement, Early Reading Programs, Direct Instruction, Mnemonic Strategies, Curriculum Based Measurement, Cooperative Learning, Behavior and Cognitive Behavior Modification Strategies)

• Identify learning and behavior problems early to help avoid the cumulative effects of ongoing difficulties. • Discuss concerns and ideas with parents and other educational professionals at the school.

• Provide structured activities and guidance for parents or other adults to work with the child to help develop necessary skills.

• Collaborate with other professionals in a multidisciplinary student-support team.

This handout for educational professionals was adapted from a handout developed for teachers. Jimerson, S., Woehr, S., Kaufman, A., & Anderson, G. (2004). Grade retention and promotion: Important information for educators. In A.S. Canter, S.A. Carroll, L. Paige, & I. Romero (Eds.), Helping Children at Home and School: Handouts From Your School Psychologist (2nd ed., Section 3, pp. 61– 64). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. Source

What Research Says About… / Grade Retention

Grade Retention in Elementary Schools: Policies, Practices, Results, and Proposed New Directions


Is Retaining Students in the Early Grades Self-Defeating?

Research Findings on Retention from the National Association of School Psychologists


Migrant Students and Trauma

Some of our students who’s parents are migrant farm workers are preparing to go back to Mexico over the Winter School break. Some of our students may encounter an event that could cause undo stress and trauma. This post is gear towards gaining understanding around how to support trauma at school.

Undocumented immigrant children and youth are frequently subject to particularly traumatic experiences, including racial profiling, ongoing discrimination, exposure to gangs, immigration raids, the arbitrary checking of family members’ documentation status, forcible removal or separation from their families, placement in detention camps or in child welfare, and deportation. Source

Teachers are also affected by the stress of some of the fall out that occurs in migration and immigration issues. Here is a quick conclusion to a recent study of those who work with migrant immigrants.

” Although there is an increased interest regarding factors that contribute to immigrants’ mental health, little attention has been given to the psychological needs of Mexican immigrants affected by deportation. Research focused on this population is necessary in order to better understand and generate appropriate interventions for working with Mexican immigrants affected by deportation. Similarly, experiences of professionals with a history of working with this population may identify potential challenges and provide recommendations for working with this population. Furthermore, it is important that educators and mental health training programs offer additional training in multiculturalism to those students interested in working with this population.” 

The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success

Teacher toolkit on trauma

Preliminary Adaptations for Working with Traumatized Latino/Hispanic Children and their Families

When Immigration Is Trauma: Guidelines for the Individual and Family Clinician

Partnering with Parents and Families to Support Immigrant and Refugee Children at School

How Today’s Immigration Enforcement Policies Impact Children, Families, and Communities- A View from the Ground


Helping immigrant children heal

Immigrant Children and PTSD PowerPoint

Responding to Students with PTSD in Schools

How to Support Refugee Students in the ELL Classroom

Mexico’s Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Immigrant Children: A Call for Collaboration Among Educators

Evidence-Based Practices with Latino Youth: A Literature Review

Migrant Health Issues Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Brochures/Fact Sheets


 Migrant Farmworker Families: Books for Kids

What teachers can do to support students living in poverty


Poverty is a difficult obstacle for learning students.

A New Majority Research Bulletin: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools


What you can do

• Operate like NASA – failure is not an option. If you cannot connect people or resolve a poverty issue, who in your network or community might be able to? Use an “If not me, then who?” approach.

• Build stronger partnerships. Poverty is complex and requires a comprehensive community-wide approach. Connect with other businesses, organizations, and individuals in the neighborhood who can help. Rely on your “full resource backpack,” an inventory of who in your community may be able to assist people in moving out of poverty.

• Learn proven strategies. In spite of the lack of education in our country about poverty, there are theories that provide strategies for breaking the iron cage of poverty. The following page outlines five theories and provide suggestions for how educators and others can break the barriers of poverty.

• Mentor. Take the time to build meaningful relationship with students



You can help your students who live in poverty by implementing some of these suggestions:

• When you suspect that their peers are taunting disadvantaged students, act quickly to stop the harassment.

• Students who live in poverty have not been exposed to broadening experiences such as family vacations, trips to museums, or even eating in restaurants. Spend time adding to their worldly experience if you want poor students to connect their book learning with real-life situations.

• Listen to your disadvantaged students. They need a strong relationship with a trustworthy adult in order to succeed.

• Work to boost the self-esteem of students who live in poverty by praising their school success instead of what they own.

• Provide access to computers, magazines, newspapers, and books so low-income students can see and work with printed materials. School may be the only place where they are exposed to print media.

• Keep your expectations for poor students high. Poverty does not mean ignorance.

• Don’t make comments about your students’ clothes or belongings unless they are in violation of the dress code.

• Students who live in poverty may not always know the correct behaviors for school situations. At home, they may function under a different set of social rules. Take time to explain the rationale for rules and procedures in your classroom.

• Be careful about the school supplies you expect students to purchase. Keep your requirements as simple as you can for all students.

• Arrange a bank of shared supplies for your students to borrow when they are temporarily out of materials for class.

• Do not require costly activities. For example, if you require students to pay for a field trip, some of them will not be able to go.

• If you notice that a student does not have lunch money, check to make sure that a free lunch is an option for that child.

• Be very sensitive to the potential for embarrassment in even small requests for or comments about money that you make. For example, if you jokingly remark, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” you could embarrass one of your low-income students.

• Make it clear that you value all of your students for their character and not for their possessions

Adapted from First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide.


Educating Everybody’s Children (Book)

Poverty Myth (Article)

The Effects of Poverty on Teaching and Learning (great read)

Students in Poverty

Improving Education for Students with Learning Disabilities Living in Poverty

Concise Handout on Student Poverty*

Teaching Through Trauma: How poverty affects kids’ brains (Listen to the audio clip)

Effects of Poverty What Teachers Should Know (PowerPoint)

Teaching with Poverty in Mind (Book Review on PowerPoint)

Slow Learners


Children with less ability, such as slow learners or students with low average intelligence, could not be expected to learn as well because their potential was less and, therefore, their difficulties in learning could be explained (Meyer, 2000).

Helping Slow Learners Succeed

In this Principal Leadership article, McGill University professor Steven Shaw focuses on slow learners, many of whom, he says, fall through “one of the largest and most pervasive cracks in the educational system.” Students with borderline intelligence, who make up about 14 percent of the student population, don’t quality for special education but often do poorly in regular classrooms and high-stakes tests. “Standard systems and supports are often ineffective – even counterproductive – because they fail to meet students’ specific learning needs and instead create a cycle of failure,” says Shaw. “By the time many of these students get to high school, their academic difficulties and related self-perceptions and attitudes toward learning are entrenched.” They are disproportionately kept back, get in trouble, drop out, and are underemployed, unemployed, or incarcerated. Still, many slow learners graduate from high school and complete postsecondary education.

Shaw lists some keys to success:

– Making sure they have close relationships with one or two staff members;

– Maximizing academically engaged time and providing extra time on task;

– Breaking down lessons and tasks into manageable chunks;

– Presenting information concretely versus abstractly and relating it to real-world experiences;

– Using hands-on activities and computer-assisted instruction to reinforce learning;

– Helping students relate new material to previous learning and organize it for effective memory storage;

– Providing repetition and frequent practice of discrete skills applied to different challenges;

– Helping students generalize skills and knowledge and apply them to new situations;

– Providing a variety of ways to demonstrate competence;

– Pairing students with peer mentors; – Helping them set long-term goals and manage their time;

– Helping them develop academic motivation by getting them involved in activities they enjoy and in which they are successful;

– Maintaining high expectations and rewarding genuine effort.

It’s a myth that slow learners need slow-paced instruction, says Shaw. “Slower-paced instruction is a surefire recipe for falling further behind,” he says. “Students with borderline intellectual functioning require more practice opportunities in the same amount of time as their average-ability peers. An appropriately paced classroom is one that is well organized, that uses computer-assisted instruction, and is taught by a teacher who has high expectations for rapid work completion. This type of environment enables slow learners to learn the discrete facts they need to know to overcome their limitations in generalization. Computer-assisted instruction makes learning basic skills automatic, which is essential to gaining fluency.” “Rescuing Students from the Slow Learner Trap” by Steven Shaw in Principal Leadership, February 2010 (Vol. 10, #6, p. 12-16), no e-link available


Slow Learners an Academic Guide

Great Teacher Handouts on Supporting Slow Learners in the classroom

Slow Learner PowerPoint

Slow Learner’s in the context of BLOOM’S PowerPoint

Grade Retention and Borderline Intelligence: The Social–Emotional Cost

Slow Learner FAQ

What’s the Difference — Slow Learner or Learning Disabled?

Slow Learners: Role of Teachers and Guardians in Honing their Hidden Skills


Teacher Step By Step Strategies (Slow Learners)

Staff Development for Teaching Slow Learners


Common Core

What are the Common Core Standards?

Educational standards describe what students should know and be able to do in each subject in each grade. In California, the State Board of Education decides on the standards for all students, from kindergarten through high school. The California Department of Education helps schools make sure that all students are meeting the standards.

Since 2010, a number of states across the nation have adopted the same standards for English and math. These standards are called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Having the same standards helps all students get a good education, even if they change schools or move to a different state. Teachers, parents, and education experts designed the CCSS to prepare students for success in college and the workplace. SOURCE


Great Lifehacker Article

What parents should know

Parents’ Guide to Success Booklet

Common Core 101

Common Core PowerPoint for parents



Grit and the Growth Mindset

Above is a visual representation of a huge movement in the schools called the “Growth Mindset”.


Angela Duckworth takes this concept a bit further focusing on GRIT in her TED talk below.

12- Item Grit Scale


Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’

Overview of Growth Mindset

KQED Growth Mindset