The holidays are stressful, and especially tough for kids with special needs and their families. Here, one mom offers tips for a happier holiday season.

By Jamie Pacton
December 22, 2015

The holidays can be a stressful time of year for everyone, and especially for kids with special needs and their families. My autistic son, Liam, struggles mightily at this time of year because his routines change, sensory challenges—bright lights, new smells, crowds everywhere—abound, and new environments like relatives' houses present unexpected social situations. He copes with it as best he can, but for a long time I didn't get how tough it was for him.

Like many parents I know, for the first years after Liam's diagnosis, I was still trying to make him—and our family—seem like everyone else. We had a big tree, which Liam liked to chew on. I dragged Liam and his younger brother to photographers, but we never got a perfect shot. I bought loads of toys, and despaired when Liam only wanted to open one gift or two. I fussed over making the perfect gingerbread house, having the perfect holiday card, and making sure we kept up with all my friends were doing.

It was exhausting, and I've since let go of all those "keeping up" and "perfect holiday" notions. Now, we have holidays that are more fun, less stressful, and happier for Liam and our family. Here's how we do it:

Take a candid holiday photo.

Gone are the days of forcing my kids to take professional photos. Those always meant too much fussing over outfits, too much sitting still, and they usually led to meltdowns from both boys. This year's holiday photo (above) is blurry, taken at a fast pace, but it captures a sweet moment between my kids, and, to me, that's better than any set of matching clothing or glossy photography concept.

Holiday tree boys
Credit: Holiday tree boys

Make holiday projects into sensory fun time.

I still like to bake cookies and make gingerbread houses with my boys, but I've learned that the process is way more important than the product. Our baking time is basically a sensory free-for-all, full of smearing icing, sifting candies, and lots of snacking. It's fun, laid-back, and very low stakes (as you can see from our recent post-modern take on a gingerbread house).

Liam gingerbread house
Credit: Liam gingerbread house

Buy presents that follow an autistic child's interests, not based on age level.

Although Liam is 7, he still loves Elmo, stacking toys, Duplos, and other toys that he's enjoyed for years. Rather than fighting this, we lean into it. We buy toys that follow his interests. Although he's non-speaking and can't always tell me what he wants, I take him to a toy store and follow him around, seeing what catches his eye. My relatives are also great about putting Liam's gift money towards experiences he can enjoy like getting a zoo pass, going to open gym time, or other fun, family activities that Liam loves.

Liam toy store
Credit: Liam toy store

Avoid stress, take breaks, relax your timetables.

This means different things for us at different times. If we're at a family gathering, it means stepping away when Liam's overstimulated. It means that we have a tiny, fake tree that we keep tucked into a corner and bring out when it's time to open gifts (rather than keeping a huge tree in the living room all season long, which means Liam is not constantly chewing on it or knocking it over). It also means we shop at off times and take breaks whenever needed, so everyone can be successful. It means that I don't worry about sending out cards and packages on deadlines, knowing that a New Year's card or late present is just as meaningful as one that arrived a week or two earlier.

Stay in the moment.

I think this is pretty good parenting advice in general, but especially around the holidays I remind myself to stay in the moment. I try not to look too far into the past, and stew over all the "what-might-have-beens," and I don't look to the future and all the "what might be's." Staying present allows my husband and I to appreciate the joy in small moments (like a recent very short, but still successful family breakfast at a restaurant) and makes the days more successful for everyone.

Liam and Eliot breakfast
Credit: Liam and Eliot breakfast

I wish you all a safe, happy, relaxing holiday season. I know it can be full of challenges, but I hope you all find the perfect way to celebrate with your own uniquely wonderful family.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at and Twitter @jamiepacton.