Christmas is one of the ultimate events in the autism calendar. High emotions, exciting presents (and maybe some slightly disappointing ones), social expectations, immense sensory input and maybe even travelling. In this article you will find a guide on how to get your child through the Christmas period with as many good memories as possible. There is also a printable visual guide (one decorated and one plain, depending on your child’s preference) that you can fill out for each day, to help them understand what is happening.
- Remember to say ‘no’ if you need to. I think this is one of the principle rules of planning and festivities with autism. Manage your calendar and remember your child’s needs within the fray. You may have invitations galore but if your child can not cope with that, take the pressure off the whole family. You don’t have to go somewhere that your child can’t cope, just because a family member wants you to. If they tut or you get negative comments, remember that autism is a very real condition. Just like you would refuse activities if your child was in bed with a high temperature, you can refuse activities because your child needs to lie in bed with an array of sensory aids. We regularly stay home to play the Xbox rather than going out because there is no reason to place additional pressure on us. It’s not being lazy or antisocial, it is catering to our needs in the right way. You can justify it by remembering that a few quality family memories is better than a lot of memories tainted by meltdowns and undue stress. If you really can’t get out of something that is not appropriate for your child, suggest changing the activity to something more autism-friendly (like a meal at home where everyone brings a dish, rather than a big dinner at a busy restaurant).
- Forget traditions that don’t work, the ‘norm’ is not your friend. Noah knows every present he is getting. He knows what I’ve put in his stocking. He’s vetoed some presents that I have had to find other homes for. We even dismantled his advent calendar half way through the month and filled it with different sweets that he preferred. This doesn’t ruin the magic of gift-giving, it preserves it. Come Christmas day, he will not be filled with immense expectations and high anxiety. Rather, he will know what to expect and be ecstatic to receive it. Likewise, we do gifts in the week building up to Christmas rather than giving them all on the day, so that he doesn’t get overloaded on Christmas morning (and has activities to do in the exciting build up to the big day). We tried and abandoned elf on a shelf because Noah struggles with pretend play. The magic wasn’t in it for him because he couldn’t cope with the pretense that the elf moves on its own, so now our un-named elf hangs out in a different spot every year, looking pretty and very static. We don’t do well with sitting down for a meal so we are making a buffet of party food rather than a roast dinner on Christmas day. In past years, when we had a big family dinner, Noah would come in and out to eat and ask questions and then vacate the table just as quickly.
- Plan breaks throughout the day. It may be helpful to try and remove your child for some one-on-one time at different points. This might be for a sensory activity or to get out for a walk so that they have some time away from the chaos. This will help them avoid burn out and tackle stress levels before they get too high.
- Build your own traditions. Make traditions that work for your family. We do a Christmas eve box and watch a movie to delay bed time with an over-excited child. This is a very purposeful move to structure bed time on Christmas eve, when it could otherwise be a big problem. It also means we get quality family time without too much stress. If Noah walks off mid-movie to play on his tablet, that’s fine too. Noah doesn’t like Christmas jumpers (too much wool) so he wears a festive check shirt (that gets taken off immediately because he’s always hot) and we put a Christmas jumper on the dog instead. I don’t like savoury food that much so we have tons of biscuits and chocolate instead, which also helps me avoid a meltdown because it gives me the positive sensory input that I need. Everything can be adapted and used for autism-friendly fun.
- Look after yourself. Christmas is high stress for carers too. Make sure you carve out time to look after yourself. If you have family that can offer respite after the big day, take advantage of that and don’t feel guilty about having a break. Buy yourself a nice gift before Christmas and treat yourself to a special activity if your child has a last day of school or day care (I’m having a hot chocolate in a cafe right now). Self-care is self-preservation and you deserve it. Plan these breaks carefully and avoid doing them at times when your child is likely to be very stressed, so that you can actually have a break rather than having to dip in and out of your caring role.
- Create a Christmas sensory kit. I tend to build this into the presents…Noah’s stocking is often a sensory haven that he can use throughout the day. If you have new sensory aids and some familiar ones, it will help them engage with a break while making sure they feel like it’s a treat.
- Make an autism profile. If you are seeing family members or friends who are unfamiliar with your child’s autism, creating a profile can help. It might include tips like, ‘don’t force eye contact’ or ‘don’t hug them’ and it can also include information about your child’s favourite topics to help people connect with them. You shoud also include information about your child’s particular difficulties so that people understand why they may be distressed. Keeping it simple will help people engage with it and encourage autism awareness and understanding on the day.
- Forget demands. Your child is likely to be experiencing very intense emotions and this will exacerbate their sensory needs and difficulties. Don’t make them do anything that they are showing you they can’t do. If they are resisting, there is a very good reason for it, even if they can’t communicate it at the time. Remember, behaviour is communication and if a child is acting out or refusing to engage with something, it’s because they aren’t coping and forcing them will create a meltdown.
- Plan and prepare. Make sure your child knows exactly what is happening over Christmas and try to avoid unnecessary changes. Make a visual schedule for the week and a visual plan for each day you have a big activity. I have created printable guides that you can fill out with or for your child. You can use pictures if language doesn’t work for your child. It may be written, list form, an hour by hour breakdown or filled with pictures. Whatever works best for your child. You can refer back to this all day and it will also serve as a guide for you to help your child if they become distressed. Put it somewhere visible wherever you are and remember, even if your child doesn’t seem to be using the visual guides, they are probably looking at them and memorising them. Noah and I both memorise our schedule using our peripheral vision and then can recall them in our minds throughout the day. They’re still important and being used.
Click the image to open a PDF of the printable.