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How to involve your child with autism in Christmas (Part I – Decorating the Christmas tree)


For most people, Christmas can be a joyous and exciting time of the year that people look forward to. During Christmas, people get to receive presents, admire the Christmas decorations, spend time with family or even go away on a holiday. For children with autism however, they may not feel the same excitement towards this season, or understand how to join in the festivities.

One way to involve your child with autism in Christmas would be to involve them in decorating the Christmas tree. This activity could be a good way for parents to spend some quality time with their child with autism, and it could also provide your child with the avenue to expand their creativity and imagination.

Here are some tips on how to involve your child with autism in decorating the Christmas tree:

Before decorating the tree:

  1. Prepare your child for changes in the house.

Children with autism can find changes challenging. A new feature like the Christmas tree in the house may be difficult for a child with autism to cope with, and they may not welcome this new addition to the house.

Prepare your child that there will be a Christmas tree in the house, with the use of a social story. In your social story, do include:

  • How a Christmas tree looks like
  • The location of the Christmas tree in the house
  • A calendar with the dates when the Christmas tree will go up and when the tree will be taken down
  • How your child can be involved in decorating the tree
  • The expected behaviours while decorating the tree. For example, listen to parents, gentle hands.
  1. Consider your child’s safety.

A Christmas tree can potentially be a safety hazard for typical children as well as children with autism. To ensure your child’s safety while decorating the Christmas tree, do take in the following considerations:

  • Christmas tree. While purchasing a Christmas tree, do consider your child’s potential allergy to pine, or tendency to pull pine needles off the tree and eat them. For your child’s safety, opt for an artificial Christmas tree instead.
  • Christmas tree ornaments. Be mindful of breakable ornaments and glass baubles. Instead, opt for child-safe ornaments (e.g. ornaments made out of cloth, felt, plastic, or cardboard). You could also include your child’s interest by making ornaments of their favourite cartoon characters (using simple materials like paper, sparkles, glitter, ribbon and strings).
  • Fairy lights. If your child with autism has sensitivities towards visual stimulation, the bright and flashing lights on a Christmas tree may be overwhelming for them. Hence, you would want to avoid decorating your tree with fairy lights.

While decorating the tree:

  1. Communicate expectations to your child with autism.

Before beginning the process of decorating the tree, read the social story to your child with autism and remind them of the expected behaviours while decorating the tree. When your child demonstrates the expected and appropriate behaviours while decorating the tree, it is important to praise your child, and you can reward your child with a special item after you have finished decorating the tree.

  1. Divide the Christmas tree into sections.

To set your child up for success, you can have a kid’s section and adult’s section on the tree. You could decorate the top half of the tree while your child decorates the bottom section of the tree.

Your child may require some instructions on where to put the ornaments, but do give them opportunities for creative freedom as well. It is important to praise your child for helping you in this process so that he/she feels successful.

In the event that you are dissatisfied with the outcome of the kid’s section on the tree, you could rearrange the ornaments at a separate time (for example, while your child is asleep).

  1. Be mindful of safety hazards.

If you do opt for fairy lights on your Christmas tree, be mindful of the electrical wiring as your child might be at risk of getting entangled or electrocuted. You may want to put the fairy lights as the final step of the decoration and it should be done by an adult.

We hope that these tips can help you and your family get excited for this festive season. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from all of us at EAP Malaysia!