Making Holiday Memories with Your Special Needs Child

You probably have a favorite memory from the holiday season that brought your family together.  Finding an activity that everyone can enjoy and participate in, especially when you have a child with autism, can be challenging. Depending on your child’s abilities or their sensory aversions, the typical holiday activities may be out of the question.

Holiday Activities with Special Needs Child

Here are 5 activities that you can adapt and adjust for every member of your family to participate in.

  1. Wrapping Paper Assembly Line

Whether you have gifts for family, a school party, or stocking stuffers, you can turn it into a wrapping party assembly line. Turn each step of wrapping a present into a station or job. The first station would be placing the gift items into a bag or box. Next station would be wrapping the gift, or stuffing a bag with tissue paper. Then using tape to keep the paper together, putting a bow on, labeling the gift with the person’s name and so on. You could assign a job to each family member, or write down all the jobs on a piece of paper and have each person pick from a hat. Keep in mind your child’s strengths and weaknesses and be prepared for possible conflicts depending on their part in the activity.

The skills you are working on with this activity include bilateral coordination, fine motor strengthening, following directions, and also appropriate social interactions within a group setting, just to name a few.

  1. Make Homemade Holiday Ornaments
    This isn’t as hard as it sounds because I have a super easy recipe for you that double as an awesome sensory experience as well. Cinnamon Applesauce Ornaments are easy to make and smell amazing on your tree during the holiday season.

The recipe is very simple, you just need 2 cups of applesauce and 2 cups of cinnamon (powdered works best).

Mix the cinnamon and applesauce together in a large mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Spread it out on a cookie sheet with a rolling pin. Then use cookie cutters to make the ornament shapes. Take a toothpick and make a small hole in each ornament at the top. Use a spatula to place each ornament onto a dry, flat surface and allow to dry out for 2-3 days until they are hard. Then thread from string through them and hang on your tree.

The skills used in this activity are bilateral coordination with the mixing and rolling, visual motor skills with the cookie cutters, and also following directions and working together as a group.

Put some soft holiday music on in the background if it is not too distracting for your child and enjoy this sensory holiday activity.

  1. Making Homemade Holiday Cards
    Choose a few select people in your family or friends list to receive some homemade holiday cards. Is your child able to copy a piece of text onto the card? This is great handwriting and fine motor practice for a practical activity. Maybe they can decorate the card. Or they can label it with the return address, stamp, and sticker on the back of the card. Consider your child’s strengths or skill they need to work on and have them help with this holiday activity. Remember to get the entire family involved in the process.
  1. Holiday-Themed Sensory Bins
    If you have never put a sensory bin together, they are actually pretty simple to do. Sensory bins are a great thing for all kids so you can include the entire family with them. Simply pick a base such as rice, beans, bird seed, etc. Then fill it with various scooping, dumping items and containers that your child can use to play with. I also like to add various scented things to the base, such as a few drops of essential oils. Basically anything to make to smell like the holidays. There are tons of holiday sensory bin ideas if you search on Pinterest or Google.
  2. Holiday Music Karaoke Night
    If having music playing during activities is distracting or overwhelming, then set aside a time to have a family holiday music party or karaoke night. Add some dancing in as part of the party to work on some great gross motor skills as well. Keep in mind the pace and tempo of the music and have a headset nearby in case your child gets too overwhelmed by the noise. Or you can set aside a quiet area in your home for your child to retreat to if they need to and return to the party when they are ready.

With all these activities, it may be helpful to have a visual schedule so that your child knows exactly what is going on with that activity and it can also help them transition away from the activity when it is over.  I typically just draw out my visual schedules with the words and my own hand-drawn pictures. However if you have access to clip-art that goes along with each activity you can use that in a basic word document.

Have a quiet space available in your home that you child can go to decompress, use fidgets, and help to self-regulate their reactions to sensory input is always helpful. Also be prepared to stop each activity if it is getting to be too much for some members of your family and return to it at a later time.

This article was featured in Issue 41 – Celebrating Family

Heather Greutman

Heather Greutman is a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant turned therapy/homeschool mom blogger at where she encourages independence, one activity at a time. Heather has four years of experience working in the public school system with children, including those with autism ages preschool through high-school. She is the author of Basic Shapes for Beginners. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two children.