6 Calming Activities for the Hectic Holiday Season

Navigating the world of autism can be especially hectic during the holidays. While you juggle your to-do list, you may also be wondering how in the world to make this the most wonderful time of the year for your special-needs child. Sometimes, that magic is hard to create. Sometimes, it’s downright impossible.

But that’s all right. Take it from moms who have been through it. There are practical ways to handle the parts of the holidays that could lead to sensory overload for your child. Enjoying the holidays with a child on the autism spectrum starts with having a plan. You need real-world solutions. Here are some practical calming activities that may work for you.

1. Pack a bag of tools and toys.

 The first activity is up to you. In the scouting spirit of “be prepared,” come up with your emergency kit you can take with you. Think of it as your bag of tricks. It’s not just a big purse full of random items. It requires thinking about what you really need to have on hand to soothe or occupy your child’s attention. Some people call it a calm-down kit.

 In her blog, Word to Your Mother, Heather Burnett says the first time her son, who has autism, had a meltdown in public, she also melted down.

 “Nobody told me what to have on hand that may help,” she wrote, “and nobody offered us a helping hand the first time we experienced a public meltdown. I felt hopeless and angry — and entirely out of control.”

 She found nothing in her purse to distract her son, but the experience made her change what she carried with her. She discovered certain toys or food were good to have on hand in case of a meltdown. Kits might include noise-canceling headphones, crunchy snacks, fidget toys, or bubbles.

 “I’m not going to lie to you and say all of these items will work,” Burnett writes, “but they are worth trying.”

2. Give your child a blanket, a book, and a quiet space.

 In Chattanooga, Tenn., Bria Jones knows when her toddler daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, needs a calming distraction, a comforting object or quiet time might help. Jones’s bag for her daughter, Anavi, includes a maroon throw blanket that Anavi loves.

 Anavi can’t verbalize what she wants, so Jones tries to anticipate her needs. Sometimes, Anavi is just hungry, thirsty, needs a diaper change or a nap. Sometimes, it takes a little more to calm her. Jones knows Anavi likes it when she rubs her feet. Sometimes, she just needs quiet, maybe a board book, and a few minutes left alone. Often, that’s enough to soothe her.

 Jones doesn’t claim to have the answers about avoiding meltdowns. She is learning as she goes. Her daughter is in a therapy program, and Jones seeks support from other moms of kids on the spectrum.

 “I don’t know it all,” she says. “I just knew my daughter was different.” And she’s learning a new way of parenting to meet her needs.

3. Take a bath, a walk, or make Play-Doh animals.

 Alix Strickland, an applied behavior specialist and founder of the Le Chemin ABA Learning House in Paris, France, says in addition to a calm-down kit, calming activities can help kids feel better as well. Depending on the age, she recommends drinking a glass of water, going for a walk, taking a nap, or taking a bath.

 Each of those things can distract your child, change the situation, and remind them of a familiar routine that they may crave. Preschoolers might like animal Play-Doh mats, Strickland says in her blog. She creates zoo-themed mats that have pictures of animals. She says parents can teach their kids how to roll noses or other shapes and put them on the mat. The sensory activity is something many of her students love.

4. Give your pre-teen an exit strategy.

 For older kids, a good calming activity may be coming up with a “secret code” that lets you know your child wants to leave a social situation.

 “Your kid may be eager to participate in social situations (like a birthday party) but feel anxious about what to do if it gets too overwhelming,” blogger Clara Muriel writes in Very Special Tales, a blog about parenting kids with special needs. “You can agree, for example, on a short-time attendance, a ‘secret code’ to let you know your kid wants to leave or agree on a phone call to be picked up.”

 Kids aren’t always sure how new situations will work and what rules apply when they don’t have a clear routine in place, Muriel writes. So, teaching them how to plan for a social situation by giving them an exit strategy may give them some control over the situation, she says, and make an outing a success.

5. Try yoga, martial arts, archery or horseback riding.

 Shelley Brewer, the blogger behind STEAM Powered Family, found plenty of calming activity ideas when her kids were young, but as her boys got older, she had to come up with her own. While she still finds things such as stress balls and essential oils useful as calming tools, she’s looked to other things to meet sensory needs for older children, tweens, teenagers, and adults.

 She says just a few minutes of yoga a day can make a difference, while something like martial arts can build strength, routine, and calmness. She has also tried activities that build body awareness, such as archery, or activities that have lots of sensory inputs, like horseback riding.

 “In the end it’s about finding what is right for each individual,” she writes, “and sometimes, that involves lots of trial and error. Also, what doesn’t work at one age, may be a great fit at a different age.”

6. Download a meditation app.

 No matter your child’s age, meditation apps developed for different age groups may be a solution for times that call for a little calm. Some teach kids specific relaxation techniques, like the cartoon-based Chill Outz, an app for kids as young as 3 and up. The characters in this app tell stories and teach kids how to relax by humming, focusing on breathing, relaxing tense muscles, or getting ready for bed.

 Other apps, like MindShift, can bring anxiety relief for pre-teens or even adults. It’s meant to develop helpful ways of thinking about things such as sleep, riding out intense emotions, dealing with social anxiety, worry, panic, or conflict.

 Another, Headspace, offers guided mediation and mindfulness for a range of ages. It focuses on improving focus, exercising mindful awareness, and reducing stress. You can find each of these apps in the App Store, where you can read more about them and follow the steps to download and use them.

Experiment to find what works for you and your child.

 There’s no magic wand for making your holidays especially magical. Whether you try sensory toys, yoga, or meditation apps, experimentation may offer a solution for your situation. Not every strategy will work for every child.

 Calming activities that worked for the moms in this blog have something in common – they’re all practical ways to help kids relax and unwind. Whether you’re in the toddler stages of the autism journey or raising young adults, what works for you one day may be different than the next. Trying activities like these may give you a better sense of what will calm your child — and yourself.

Learn more about making the holidays successful for kids on the autism spectrum.

How to Help Your Child Through a Meltdown

by Bradley Ross, M.A., BCBA, LBA
Assistant Clinical Director, LEARN/AST, Louisiana

There is no “one-plan-fits-all” approach for handling meltdowns. When children with autism hit sensory overload, their reactions can be intense, and knowing how to respond thoughtfully in the heat of the moment can be challenging.

Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to make meltdowns go away. But there are tactics and strategies to help tame a meltdown when your child feels overwhelmed. The key is to stay calm and work your way through it.


Assessing the Situation, Identifying the Triggers


One thing that can help is to understand the reason for the meltdown, while recognizing that reasons can vary greatly from child to child. For instance, your child may not want to do certain tasks. They may be nervous about school. They may get embarrassed about underperforming, when compared to peers. Or they may struggle with separation from mom or dad.


Some kids have meltdowns because of environmental factors like room temperature, new students, or how the desks are set up in the classroom. Even small changes in the environment can lead to lead to intense feelings—rearranging furniture, for instance. Take note of the time and place of the meltdown and factors that might be overwhelming. Once you identify the trigger, you can see if there is a way to avoid it.

If your child can have conversations, try to discuss and get to the root of the problem. This can also help you identify patterns of behaviors to address. If your child is unable to have a conversation or communicate verbally, pay attention to other communication cues to try to better understand the problem.


Knowing the cause of the behavior isn’t mandatory, but it is helpful in knowing how to address it. In some cases, you can eliminate the trigger. Other times, you just have to wait it out and  give your child space to rest and recover.


Home-Based Strategies

One way to make your expectations clear is to create a token/reward system at home. For example, you can create a chart on which you and your child come up with and list desired behaviors. Use pictures instead of words if it helps your child understand your expectations. Talk out loud about your goals and the rewards your child can expect for meeting those goals. Remember: the rewards don’t always have to be tangible items like a pack of gummies or a cup of hot chocolate. Rewards can also be experiential, such as playing a special game before bed, reading a favorite book, or baking a tasty treat together.

As you work with your child to create your list or chart of behavior goals, consider these possibilities:

  • Turn-taking: Here, you can explain that you and your child are going to sit down and play with toys. After a minute, ask your child for a turn with their toy. If your child gives you a turn, they can earn a token/reward.
  • Sportsmanship: Play a game with your child. Ask them if they want you to let them win the first game. During the second game, let them know you’re going to try to win. Tell them that if you win, and they tell you “good game,” while keeping a happy face, they will earn a token/reward.
  • Doing work: Let your child know that in two minutes, you’re going to ask them to pick up their crayons. If they pick them up quickly, they can earn a token/reward.

Start with easy goals. Over time, you can provide less warning and make these more natural,  everyday interactions.

Understanding What Happens at School

Targeting meltdowns at school can be more difficult since you aren’t there. If your school has a reporting system to give you a sense of your child’s behavior each day, that can help you measure progress.

For example, some schools use a color scale: green equals good behavior; yellow is slightly disruptive; and red is a meltdown. If your school does not have a behavior reporting system and you think your child could use one, talk to your child’s teacher.

You could include behavior reports from the school in your token/reward system at home—or even set up a separate system based on these reports. For example, a green mark at school could equal an hour of TV time or three tokens, while a yellow mark could equal 30 minutes of TV or two tokens, and a red mark could equal 15 minutes of TV or one token.

You’re probably wondering, “Why reward a red score?” The reason is to reward your child for the positive behavior—bringing home the report—and to avoid taking away everything. For instance, if they think they will lose every privilege, this can increase the chance of a meltdown at school. Remember that you’re creating a reward system, not a punishment system. Focus on reinforcing positive behaviors, without being too harsh when there is a meltdown.

Also realize that reports you receive from school—or from your child or from your own observations, for that matter—are not a complete representation of the situation. Typically, a number of factors contribute to the situation, and behaviors that happen at school (or anywhere else, such as at the doctor or on the playground) can change according to the environment. Be careful not to make assumptions about solutions that may not work in every environment.

Stick to Your Rules, Celebrate Small Victories

Once you set the rules, stick to them. Avoid bartering. This system holds your child accountable and can begin with goals that are easy to reach. Accept that kids will make mistakes and that all kids engage in meltdowns from time to time. Remember to stay calm and keep your cool—these are key to addressing your child’s behavior successfully.

Start with small goals and set realistic expectations—the first one being: your child’s meltdowns will not stop at once. This is a process that will happen slowly over time. Track your progress, and celebrate the little victories when your child reaches behavior goals.


Looking for more strategies on raising kids with autism? Learn how a “calm down kit” can help your child through the hectic holiday season.