Mom with son with autismLooking for ways to make the holiday season more meaningful this year? If you have a friend or family member with a child with autism, why not offer a helping hand? Shannon Kay, PhD, BCBA-D, Director of the May Center for Child Development school in Springfield, Massachusetts, shares 10 ways that you might be able to help:

1. Help families with shopping.

Crowded malls with long lines can be intolerable to children with autism. Consider volunteering to be mom and dad’s personal shopper for the day, or babysit while they shop.

2. Help siblings enjoy the season.

Siblings of children with autism are sometimes unable to participate in holiday events because their sister or brother with autism cannot. Offer to take siblings to special holiday events.

3. Keep gatherings small.

If you have a friend or relative who has a child with autism, it is wonderful to invite them to your home. The child may be overwhelmed, however, if you also invite your 50 closest friends. Celebrate by having small gatherings with a few close friends and family members.

4. Make your home safe for a celebration.

Talk with the parents of the child with autism about how you can make your home a fun but safe place to celebrate. Make sure to remove or put out of reach easily breakable ornaments or strings of lights that might be a choking hazard. Remember that many children with autism may not yet understand the dangers of festive candles, and that jingle bells on the doors can ensure that children don’t exit unattended.

5. Prepare foods that the child will like.

Many children with autism have strong preferences when it comes to food. Find out in advance what the child enjoys or make sure parents know that it is acceptable for them to bring their own food.

6. Give families the gift of time.

Give the family “coupons” that entitle them to your time in the coming year. Families often need help with babysitting and basic household tasks, or may appreciate it if you can take siblings on special outings.

7. Ask the parents how to respond to behavior problems.

Many children with autism exhibit challenging behaviors. If a child with autism is visiting your home, learn in advance from the parents how to keep your responses to these behaviors consistent with what they do at home.

8. Give gifts that children with autism will love.

Often, parents of children with autism know what kind of gifts will be both developmentally appropriate and fun for their child. So ask them what to give! Alternatively, take the child shopping during a less busy time or find replacements for highly preferred toys that may have broken. Websites like eBay and are great sources for old favorites that may not be in toy stores. Check May Institute’s home page to get tips on whether touch-screen tablet computers make good gifts for the child with autism in your life.

9. Give the gift of time to organizations that help children with autism.

Volunteer to help at public or private schools or within community organizations that provide services to children on the spectrum.

10. Donate.

Donate to organizations that conduct research on treatments for autism or organizations that implement evidence-based treatment.

With a little advanced planning, you can help make this holiday season a more joyful one for a child with autism and his or her family.

Dr. Kay can be contacted in West Springfield, MA at 413-785-5462 or at