Christmas can be a very challenging time for people with autism. The changes in routine, extra social demands and illogical traditions make for a minefield of extra difficulties. One hurdle for autistic people and their families is decorating…the how, when and where. Decorations can be very overstimulating for autistic people but also offer great sensory opportunities and signify the time of year. Sometimes they can trigger difficult emotions like sadness and anxiety because they are associated with the difficult demands that Christmas brings. Every autistic person is different so, as always, these ideas won’t apply universally. However, this guide should give you some ideas of how to approach decorating if it is causing difficulties in your home.
Every family has different traditions. For years, I have decorated the whole house on December 1st. When I was a child, we used to get a live tree a week before Christmas day. I see my American friends putting their trees up just after thanksgiving (or some even creeping it in a few weeks before). However, when to decorate can be poignant when considering how autistic people work.
Autistic people experience powerful associations between objects, sensory input and memories. I equate it to how a smell can take a person back to a particular moment in their lives. Christmas decorations have a strong association with Christmas, which may be positive or negative. This is great as they signify the beginning of the Christmas period but when decorations are put up to early, it can be very confusing. Sometimes anxiety about Christmas day is brought forwards months, simply by seeing decorations in shops or homes. If you keep decorations for the festive period (my general rule is the last week of November to the first week of January), then it is clear that the time of year has changed but anxiety or confusion aren’t extended over months.
It is no secret that autistic people can find change difficult. This is especially true for uncontrolled or sudden changes. In our house, we now spread decorating out over a few weeks. One day do the tree, a few days later put some light chains up, a few days later decorate the bannister, and so on. By making it gradual, you can prevent the shock of your home environment (and the biggest safe space in an autistic person’s life) changing suddenly. It may help to create a visual or written schedule so that the autistic person knows what change is happening when.
Some people like to carefully plan every area of the house. Others just place decorations wherever they look best in the moment. Maybe you decorate the same every year or like to move the Christmas tree to a different space every few years. Putting some thought into where you decorate can help autistic people navigate the home. Here are some ideas to get you started.
People with autism have a natural affinity for collecting things. In our house we like to collect rocks, Pokemon, lego cards, books and Harry Potter memorabilia (I’ll leave it up to you to decode who collects what). This links closely to sorting and creating zones, which we do pretty much everywhere. There is a place for everything in my house and in my mind. If this organisation is lacking then I struggle to process my thoughts. Christmas decorations can follow this rule. Try to colour co-ordinate rooms and dont scatter decorations around. Arrange all your snow globes on the mantel piece or put all your red and gold decorations in the kitchen. This will help to create a sense of order.
It may help to have a Christmas free space in your house for when the person with autism needs to escape. We don’t decorate our bedrooms or bathrooms in order to have escape and normalcy in some spaces.
Everyone has different traditions. We like to have chocolates and Christmas music when we decorate the tree (and possibly record a YouTube video while we’re at it!). Here are some ideas to incorporate into your traditions, whether they are existing or new, to help Christmas flow without too much anxiety.
If you buy new decorations or have a selection to choose from, let the autistic person help. This will facilitate a sense of control in the chaos and will also mean you might be able to pick decorations that won’t be too overwhelming.
Decorating is a sensory feast! Try to pick decorations that can be touched, looked at or even smelled. My mum likes to decorate the tree with gingerbread men (although only at the top, otherwise her dog’s senses have a good time too). We like using decorations with colour-changing LEDs. Here are a few ideas:
- Tinsel that is within reach.
- Plastic baubles that can be touched.
- Real leaves (no spikes). You can wrap stalks in some wet tissue to keep them fresh for longer.
- Christmas scents through candles (out of reach) or essential oils in a diffuser.
- Colour changing LEDS, particularly if they can be picked up (such as false candles or light up plastic ornaments).
- Snow globes, there are a wide range of plastic ones, some of which are also photo frames.
- Christmas essential oils can be put onto a Christmas teddy for added comfort.
- Music boxes.
Beware of anything that makes sudden movement or sounds. We also don’t use flashing lights as neither of us can focus on anything else if we do. Try to use warm lights, not bright white or blue as they can be painful to hypersensitive vision. LED lights are great as they don’t heat up (for curious fingers) and they don’t tend to buzz.
Try not to cram as many decorations into an area as you can. Spacing decorations out and using precious and beautiful ones sparingly can make a home much less overwhelming. This definitely applies to colours as well. If you carefully co-ordinate your colours then the sight will be less stimulating for the person with autism. Pastel or autumn colour palettes will be easier to cope with than bright primary colours. Remember that during the month of December, autistic people still need to be able to think and get things done!
Natural decorations are more calming than their plastic counterparts. However many decorations you use, consider favouring natural materials in your home. These include real trees, leaves, fruit, pinecones, mistletoe and wood.
As always, use sense and precaution with whatever you do. Don’t place glass baubles in reach of children or anyone who may not understand the dangers. Research essential oils before using them and remember that they need to be diluted further when used with children (and some are not suitable for certain medical conditions, children and pets). Be mindful of anything that may be placed in the mouth, particularly when using plants. Every autistic person will have different needs, so make sure you cater to the individual.