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Working with Students with Autism Before the Holidays

The holidays are quickly approaching, and it can be a time of high anxiety for people with autism.

I teach and tutor young people with autism, and I have autism. I also work with specialists in related fields. We all help students with reaching educational and behavioral goals. I am going to provide some input that may be helpful. At the very least, I hope this will open some dialogue on what works best for you and your clients.


Unknowns cause stress

From a personal standpoint, I struggle with any upcoming holiday. I get very stressed about the unknowns. The holidays are always positive events, but I still have high anxiety. I see my students show stress by having behaviors that they are unable to control (and are not happy with). I have seen this in open social settings, group settings, the classroom, and during one-on-one instruction. The behaviors can include fidgeting, stimming, scripting, tempers, yelling, and aggression.

I have also known many adults with autism and other “diagnoses” that have negative reasons to fear the holidays. There may be drama among relatives, neglect from family or friends, loneliness, discomfort, poverty, and poor health to name a few. Many of us are highly blessed in having our basic needs and comforts met. However, those with autism, including myself, still feel high anxiety about holidays. My peers are confounded by their autistic clients at this time, because so many of the clients are in loving, stable homes. Let me explain why the anxiety is still there.

From my autistic perspective, I am most content when I know what is going to happen with my day. I need to know what other people will be doing and where I fit in among those people. What tasks are expected of me? What can I do to earn praise or at least a feeling of accomplishment? If those answers are there, my needs are met. My anxiety goes down because I know what to expect and how I can best “do good” to “earn praise” and feel satisfaction and accomplishment.

The holidays do not meet these needs. They are a vague wash of days that are not structured, unlike school, with people coming and going and doing as they please. My students explain that this is what they experience. I do as well. From my autistic perspective, I don’t know what my role is, but everyone keeps telling me to “relax” and “enjoy myself.” That doesn’t work for me. I get very stressed out. I need tasks to meet. Students can waffle without a place to go – like school – with structure and expectations. All of these days off with open nothingness.


Gifts and food are only sure things

What is a sure thing? For me, I know that presents will show up, so a lot of my thoughts will focus on my gifts. Nothing else is set in stone over the wash of days, just the presents. So what can autistic people focus on? Presents. There is also food. Maybe there will be people involved, such as visiting relatives, but we cannot control how those people will act. Presents and food are the most controllable and reliable certains of a holiday.

When I ask my students why they are showing more anxious behaviors, they say they are thinking about a present they hope to get. Some will mention a favorite meal. Some of them have told me that their parents have let them know what they will get or have already given it to them. This helps decrease their anxiety and likely minimizes behaviors at home. Regardless, the students are still bothered by the idea of changes, open time, no or different structure, and unusual events.


Teach actions that show love and how to relax

We are all taught the value and meaning of Christmas (and other holidays that fall around this time), but these themes are hard to grasp because they are not concrete. We talk about love, but students need to learn about things they can see, hear, and experience that mean “love.” They know that presents mean love. They may not know that being in the presence of family (just by standing and listening) is love. They may not understand that small talk, human contact, and giving attention are all forms of love. Try to teach this to your clients and students so they have a better grasp of specific actions.

“Relaxing” is also a concept that is hard to understand. What does that mean? Try teaching your students or clients about actions that people do when they relax. Explain that it is okay if that doesn’t feel relaxing to them. Some people may relax by organizing things they like into rows or sections. Others may watch or listen to a favorite movie or song on repeat. Some may work on analytical tasks. I personally need to make lists of tasks to accomplish, window shop online, and read.

As for overall goals, still reach for these, but be mindful of the challenges your charges are having at this time. Break down tasks into smaller bits to accomplish. Make rewards smaller but offer them more often. Both actions increase stimulus and help the brain switch back to the task at hand.

Make sure to praise, praise, praise! Have extra patience as well. We will get through this!


Mary Janca works as an educator for individuals with autism and their families.  She is on the autism spectrum and uses her own insight to connect with others and guide them to understanding autism in ways that trainings and literature may not reach.

She has been teaching college, high school, and middle school for over 20 years to students of all types of learning styles. She holds a master’s degree in Special Education: Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and has state certifications in multiple high school and middle school subjects. She has also been involved in many agencies as either a helper or receiver, including: ASNC, TEACCH, Vocational Rehabilitation, and specialized school environments. Her goal is to be able to help in as many settings as possible, because there is such a high need for educators.

Mary enjoys the quirks of having autism but appreciates being able to connect with others. She goes through many of the trials that most individuals on the spectrum face, including trouble with taking the perspective of others, following expected behaviors, and managing emotions. She hopes to keep learning about the field of autism, so that she can continue to reach out and help others.


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