Ah, the holidays. The family visits, the Santa songs on the radio … and the parties. Perhaps you’re looking forward to exchanging presents and enjoying the general good cheer, but the parties? Not so much.

As an autism parent, you’re probably too busy trying to make sure that your child doesn’t melt down to really enjoy the festivities.

Here’s the good news: you don’t need to dread holiday gatherings with your child. Instead, you can take practical steps to prepare.

By working with your child to build emotional regulation skills, you can give yourself and your family a much better chance of enjoying the merry-making.

Why work on emotional regulation skills this season? Well, because they are a cornerstone of social interaction and self-management as well.

As we wrote in our blog post, How to equip your child with emotional regulation skills, “Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own feelings. It indicates self-control and self-command, and it’s a vital component of personal growth.”

So if you plan on attending parties with your child this season, you’d be wise to work on the following skill sets.

The ability to identify emotional states in oneself and others 

Correctly identifying emotional states is a foundational social skill, and it’s more difficult for individuals with autism than it is for typically-developing children.

As world-renowned autism researcher and professor Simon Baron-Cohen noted in his article, Can emotion recognition be taught to children with autism spectrum conditions:

“Children with autism spectrum conditions … have major difficulties in recognizing and responding to emotional and mental states in others’ facial expressions. Such difficulties in empathy underlie their social-communication difficulties that form a core of the diagnosis.”

Since children with autism have significant gaps in the area of emotional recognition, it’s crucial to use ABA strategies to practice these skills early and often.

Watch our free FirstPath video lesson, Labeling and Identifying Emotionsto see this learning in action. First, the clinician uses picture cards to help a child discern between emotions. The therapist has the student view two pictures and then identify a given emotional state.

After that, the clinician makes the exercise more challenging by displaying a picture card and asking the learner to voice the correct emotional state. Finally, the student is asked to demonstrate emotional states himself. (His natural enthusiasm lends itself to a great ‘excited’ face, complete with laughter and beaming.)


ABA exercises like these empower individuals with autism to engage with the concept of emotion on multiple levels. The picture cards engage visual memory, the verbalizations encourage expression, and the physical practice of assuming different expressions helps to concretize the concept.

Not sure how to interest your child in building this skill? Start by connecting the lessons to favorite characters from beloved books, movies, or TV shows. You can buy or create picture cards featuring familiar faces, and this may help motivate your child to learn.

As we noted in our blog post, 7 facts about emotional regulation:

“It helps to tie [emotional regulation skill-building] to your child’s current interests. For example, if your child loves the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, use Happy and Grumpy as part of the lesson.”

Use appropriate emotional expressions; verbally respond to questions

Once your child can identify his or her own emotions, the next step is to express them where needed, and voice appropriate responses to questions (as always, children who don’t use verbal language can point to picture cards or use adaptive devices)  .

That said, it’s important to ensure that your child has mastered the verbal interaction prerequisites to this skill set.

Make certain that your child can answer more concrete questions before moving on to abstract ones. Start with visually present information; for example, you can ask, “What is that?” (A blanket) and “Whose is it?” (It’s mine.)

Once you’ve established competence with concrete, visually-based questions, you can move to questions about internal feeling states.

To begin, you can offer multiple-choice queries, such as “Are you feeling sad or mad now?” or, ”Do you feel scared or happy today?” Gradually, you can progress to open-ended questions like “How are you feeling?”

FirstPath subscribers can access our video lesson and data sheets on this topic, Answering WH questions.  

Employ effective self-management strategies

Before going to a party, talk with your child about exactly what to do if he feels mad, sad, glad, or scared. Make a list of reasonable strategies.

For example, here are a few potentially healthy options when strong emotions arise during holiday gatherings (Of course, these will vary based on your child’s personality and sensory profile).

  • If you’re feeling mad – Tell Mom or Dad how you feel. Use a squeeze ball, weighted vest, or other calming device. Ask to go for a walk outside to get space to cool down.
  • If you’re feeling sad – Take a break and read a favorite book. Ask someone to play a favorite game with you. Ask for a hug.
  • If you’re feeling glad – Say it out loud or write it down. Give a hug to someone else. Dance to a favorite song.
  • If you’re feeling scared -Tell Mom and Dad. Ask for help. Take 10 deep breaths. Pick up a favorite toy or reassuring object.

Lastly, remember that with a little practice, holiday parties can go much more smoothly for your family.

Establishing stronger emotional self-management skills means that you’ll have both a better time and a reason to celebrate.