Reducing Holiday Stress for Kids with Autism

The holidays are as joyful as they are stressful, or is it the other way around?

The stress of the holidays, visiting family members, and all that comes with the season can be a lot to deal with under any circumstances.  When caring for a loved one with autism or other developmental challenges, this time of year can feel overwhelming as it creates disruption to the routines and structure of your family’s life.

Here are some helpful strategies to lessen your child’s anxiety and increase your family’s enjoyment of the holiday season:


Holiday shopping, and especially last minute trips to huge department stores, can be over stimulating and stressful for individuals who cannot tolerate too many sounds, bright lights or large groups of people.  If you do take your child shopping with you, allow enough time to gradually adapt to the intense holiday stimuli that stores exhibit at this time of year. Planning multiple short shopping trips is a good idea, and be prepared to leave before you have completed your list if your child can no longer tolerate the environment.


Individuals with autism typically struggle with changes to their environments. Keeping this in mind, decorate your home in gradual stages, rather than changing everything at once. Include your child by having him interact with the decorations and do some of the decorating himself. Some children may be disturbed by decorations with flashing lights and music. Allow your child to experience these in a store or in a quiet place first to determine if he can tolerate them, and how many.

Family Routines:

Maintaining your typical family routines as much as possible during the holiday season will result in fewer behavioral disruptions and less anxiety for the family as a whole. This is often tough to do with travel, visitors in your home, and long family gatherings. If your child can predict and understand what is going to happen, he will manage the celebration far better. Writing a story or using some visual supports (photos, drawings) to show how the day will unfold will allow him to practice some social behaviors. A visual schedule will also give you a tool to use for reference during the day, reminding him what is going to happen next (when he will get to open toys etc). This type of system creates independence and structure within a typically more unstructured setting.


Gifts are tempting to all of us.  Create opportunities to teach (and remind) that gifts will be opened during specific times during the family ritual of getting together. For families celebrating a holiday such a Hanukkah, where children may receive gifts on multiple nights, try using a visual schedule to show your child which nights he will get to open a gift and which nights he will not. We suggest waiting until just before the holiday to put gifts out to reduce the temptation for opening them. You can also practice a family ritual of taking turns opening gifts so your child learns to wait his turn and learns to predict when it is his turn to open a gift.

Your child may not be inclined to share their toy or may immediately want to play with another child’s toy. This can cause disruption and chaos so plan ahead, perhaps selecting one toy to be shared while the others are set aside or bring another new toy with you to share with the other children.

Make it Your Own:

It is important to identify what the meaning of the holiday is for you and your family and how you want to honor that- your special ritual, celebration, event. Once you have identified what that looks like, you can begin practicing ahead of time with your child and your family and extended family members what you and your child will need to make that event successful. We hope that some of the tips we have provided will help you and your family experience a peaceful, joyful and meaningful holiday season.

It’s Lacrosse Season at The Trellis School

Something wonderful is happening at The Trellis School. Adaptive Physical Education Teacher, Ian Mitchell has created a 6 week long lacrosse program for the children at Trellis.

On Saturday mornings, Mitchell and a group of volunteers work together to orchestrate a fun lacrosse session for some of the students from Trellis. Mitchell himself has worked at Trellis for almost 3 years. On top of his position of Adaptive Physical Education Teacher, he is also the Program Manager for the Therapeutic Integration Program at the Sparks location. The volunteers for the lacrosse program consist of other Trellis employees, Mitchell’s son, and a few of his son’s lacrosse teammates. Although this first session, which concludes on June 3rd, is only open to Trellis School students and related services clients, Mitchell hopes to open future programs to more families.
A typical session consists of modified games that help the children reinforce the skills that are already taught. “The best way to describe our sessions is ‘Organized Chaos!’” commented Mitchell. “Our sessions are very fast-paced, and we change things quickly so [the kids] don’t lose interest.” The activities start as soon as the kids enter the gym at Trellis. Immediately, Mitchell and the volunteers direct the kids to start an activity as a warm-up. This activity is usually a previously learned skill that they perform on their own. Next, Mitchell reviews what they did in past sessions, and the children practice these skills through various fun games. After the review, Mitchell guides the kids through new skills, which are first demonstrated to them by the instructors. When the demonstration is over, the children try these new skills with a little help from Mitchell and the other volunteers. The session comes to a close with a fun group game that gets everyone involved.
The equipment used for the program is modified to fit the children of Trellis. Instead of the usual lacrosse ball and stick, Mitchell’s group uses a soft ball and small lacrosse stick. The smaller stick is easier for the kids to use, and the soft ball alleviates fear of injury. Because of the soft ball and gentle nature of the activities, the children do not wear helmets or other equipment.
Mitchell says he was inspired by his love of lacrosse to create this program. He said he felt a desire to share his passion for this sport with the kids that he teaches. Physical activity for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is particularly important because problems such as obesity and inactivity occur at higher rates in those with ASD. On top of the physical health benefits that come with exercise for children with ASD, research has also shown that physical activity has led to behavioral improvements. In their article “Promoting Physical Activity for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Barriers, Benefits, and Strategies for Success,” Menear and Neumeier say, “Further research with exercise interventions supports the claim that exercise decreases disruptive behaviors in the short term for children with ASD.” Caitlin Sprouse, Occupational Therapist and Director of Related Services for Trellis Services commented, “Movement input from participating in sports gives great sensory input to all kids who love to move! Practicing lacrosse skills gives kids the opportunity to work on lots of motor planning as well.”
For Mitchell, however, the best part of the program is “seeing the kids smile!” As for future plans, Mitchell hopes to see his program grow and to see more kids involved. He also would like to eventually do other programs with other sports as well, particularly soccer. Ian Mitchell is always looking for qualified volunteers to help with this program. Those interested can contact Ian Mitchell at

Movement Education combined with a Social Outing = Ultimate Fun

Trellis School seeks to provide our students with social interactions, community outings, and new experiences with their peers in out-of-school settings.  We look for educational opportunities to teach our learners how to interact in meaningful and appropriate ways with their peers within the community.

In an effort to increase our participation with different schools and organizations, we reached out to some elementary schools asking to have some of our older learners participate in social activities at their school.  Education Director Reyes Vera has a working relationship with Padonia International Elementary School, and he arranged a visit to the school that coincided with the travelling Whittle equipment came to their school for physical education classes.

Gerstung Movement Education equipment, also known as Whittle equipment, is made in Baltimore, MD and has been a part of Movement Education since the early 60’s. The equipment is used to allow children to refine motor skills and build confidence in creative ways through full body engagement, balance, coordination, and problem solving.  Baltimore County Public Schools has a few sets of Whittle equipment that rotate through the school system for a month in physical education classes.  Students are challenged to use their imagination in creative ways to traverse the climbing walls, curved bridges, rope walls, ladders and balance beams. The climbing rope is often themed as a way to cross an “alligator-filled” body of water, and students are encouraged to use new ways to climb, move, and explore safely.  Tall climbing walls become mountains to overcome and balance beams become ways to escape from fairy tale creatures.  When the Whittle Equipment comes to physical education class it’s as if the ultimate playground has come indoors to be conquered.

We want to thank Padonia International Elementary School for inviting us to participate in a few of their gym classes to experience the movement education and chance to exercise our imaginations while practicing social skills through play.  We are grateful to have such a good relationship with the elementary schools in our community.  Padonia gave our students a unique experience and we look forward to future events with the amazing students and teachers at Padonia.  A special thank you to the principal, Melissa DiDonatto, physical education teacher, Gary DeGroat, the 4th grade teachers and students!