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Celebrating Hanukah With Your Child On The Autism Spectrum


The holiday season may be a challenge for all of us. Parents are stressed with expectations of providing gifts for all, children are expected to be well behaved in new places, and everyone is out of sorts because of the change in the household routine. The mass media expects us to all enjoy winter holidays…. Families with children on the autism spectrum may have mixed feelings. It is always best to plan for what you can anticipate and expect to be surprised by what you do not expect.

The holidays are a time when your child, who thrives on routines and sameness, may be forced out of his or her comfort zone. Schools close for winter breaks necessitating a change in routine. Children may be asked to visit unfamiliar places, try new things, be in the company of many people (some of whom are strangers), eat different foods, and … they are expected to enjoy the sights and smells of the season!

The world seems to be celebrating the winter season, and Hanukah is part of the party!

The following are a few ideas to consider:

  • There are so many celebrations! Consider whether to attend all, none, or perhaps arrive for the last part of the holiday party, or leave early, before a "melt-down" occurs.
  • Make the candle lighting part of the holiday routine. Light the candles each night at approximately the same time, before or after dinner, before dessert, or perhaps before distributing gifts.
  • Plan ahead for the holiday, and begin to talk about it. Perhaps note on a calendar the day you begin to light the Menorah. If there is any other special event planned, note it on the calendar as well.
  • If you do travel or go on day trips, pack a "safety bag" with your chil's favorite calming toys. These may be stress balls, video games (fully charged), and headphones to muffle sound as well as to listen to favorite music.
  • Bring foods and snacks that you know your child will enjoy. While the holiday treats are favorites for many of us, not all children on the autism spectrum enjoy the different tastes, textures, and smells. Potato latkes and applesauce may not be your child's favorite. If chicken nuggets are what your child enjoys most, and they are not on the menu, bring some along. This will be one less complication to deal with.
  • Is there a quiet place your child can go to regroup and settle down if he or she becomes over stimulated or over excited at a holiday party? Consider having this discussion with your host or hostess before the event so they can make a room or area of their home quiet, safe, and comfortable for your child.
  • Plan an exit strategy with your partner. You know your child, and you know how long he or she will last. Try to leave before the meltdown begins!
  • Consider taking two cars to every event you attend as a family. This way one parent can leave early with the child who has had enough, while the other stays through dessert and beyond.
  • Gifts — less is more. It is much better to give one gift at a time. Hanukah is well suited to a one gift at a time policy. This way the child is not overwhelmed with presents and a multitude of new toys. If the child receives a gift from a friend or family member that he or she might not appreciate, such as new clothing, consider not having your child open it in the giver's presence. Perhaps this gift can be opened at home.
  • Certainly every family has special traditions and expectations. Adaptations and accommodations may be necessary to help your child on the autism spectrum participate in these special family experiences!

Additionally, writing a Social Story™ — or several Social Stories™ — may be helpful. Below are some ideas to include:

Lighting the Menorah

  1. Bring out the Menorah
  2. Place it in the center of a baking sheet (you might want to cover with aluminum foil) in the center of a table where it will not be disturbed
  3. Choose one candle for the Shamos, the candle that will light the other candles
  4. Choose one candle for the first night
  5. Each night add one additional candle, so there are 2 candles and Shamos for the second night, 3 candles for the third night, etc.
  6. Hanukah candles are different than birthday candles, they burn out; we don't blow them out

Holiday Visits

  1. Getting dressed in holiday clothes (or not)
  2. Getting in the car
  3. Things to do on the way
  4. Picture of the location (outside) of the event
  5. Picture of the inside of the place you will be and/or how it will be decorated for the holidays
  6. Pictures of who will be there
  7. Pictures of activities you will do there
  8. Pictures of the quiet space to go to if feeling overwhelmed
  9. Gifts – open your present and say "thank you!"
  10. Saying "goodbye, thank you again," and getting back into the car for the ride home
  11. Things to do on the long car ride home
  12. Home

Keeping a notated calendar is also helpful for many children. Make a large copy of the calendar with space for all the events you will participate in during the holiday break from school or services

  • Note the last day of school
  • What you might do during your time off (go to the movies; visit the library, museums, etc.)
  • Visiting Grandma for a holiday treat
  • Shopping at the tie store for a gift for Dad
  • Inviting a friend to make play dough for a special play date
  • Watching holiday movies

Additional Resources:

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.