12/07/2012 12:37 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Comfort and Joy: Navigating the Holidays With Autism

The holiday season is a time of great joy, but also brings a considerable amount of stress for most of us. Nobody appreciates this more than the parents and families of children with autism and other disabilities, who already face unique challenges on a daily basis.

Routines and structure are more difficult to maintain during the chaos of the holidays, and kids with autism must deal with new faces, places and a disruption of their schedules. And, since many children with autism are also sensitive to noise, touch and light, the din of the holidays can become disorienting and overwhelming.

Parents have developed a number of tricks of the trade that we employ at this time of year to navigate these challenges. Planning ahead as much as possible is critical, and parents say they often make a list of activities that can help their children fill their time wherever the family goes. It can be beneficial to use rehearsal and role play to give children advance practice in dealing with new social situations, or to work together to write a "social story" that incorporates all the elements of an upcoming event or visit to better prepare them.

When visiting family or friends, parents sometimes find it helpful to make sure there is a quiet, calm place for retreat. It's important to keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or distress. An increase in behaviors like humming or rocking probably means it's time for a break.

Gift-giving -- and receiving -- is not a simple thing. Parents may practice unwrapping gifts ahead of time, which can help kids learn the understanding and the meaning of gifts. Many moms and dads recommend taking toys out of the box before wrapping them. It is more fun and less frustrating when your child can open the gift and play with the toy immediately.

Not the least of the holiday season challenges is finding the right toys for a child with autism or another disability. Most of the time, friends and family have no idea what type of toy to purchase. It's usually wise to get a list of gift ideas from your child's teacher and therapists. Toys that enhance the strengths of the child and allow them to work on some of their skills that need more practice are the best options. A good gift will help a child be successful and build their self-esteem. Many children with autism, for example, like cause and effect type toys, such as See 'n Say.

The best toys are those that all children can play with so that a child with autism can know how to play with familiar toys in their school or at a friend's home. It leads to greater inclusion in social situations.

A great resource for gift-givers is a list Autism Speaks and Toys"R"Us compiled called "Ten Toys That Speak To Autism." It features popular toys that are not only fun, but that also have attributes that make them ideal for kids with autism. The toys were specifically chosen because they play to the strengths of children with autism, while further developing some of the skills that may be more difficult.

What can you do to support a friend or relative who has a child with a disability? Be respectful of people with adult children or younger children who have challenges. Welcome them into your home. Ask questions in advance about what would be helpful to make the visit be as enjoyable as possible for everyone involved.

The holidays, above all, are a time for families and friends to come together. It's important not to shield a child with a disability from his or her extended family. Family members need to understand the challenges we face, as well as the blessings we enjoy, as parents of kids with disabilities.

Those challenges -- and the way we choose to meet them -- are what make our families so strong, unique and wonderful. There is no better time of the year to celebrate our everyday victories and the joy our children bring to our lives every day.