Autism: Have a Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a busy and exciting time for everyone and it’s important that all members of the family can enjoy the special day, but when you have a family member who’s affected by autism, the Christmas period can be challenging.

There’s lots of change, more social interaction and greater expectations in terms of meeting and communicating with a wider circle of friends and family. This can make it a stressful time for many autistic people and it’s important to plan carefully to make Christmas stress-free and enjoyable for all.

Child at Christmas

© JenkoAtaman / Adobe Stock

Compiled by the National Autistic Society, there are plenty of tips you can follow to help those who are on the autistic spectrum and their families over the Christmas period.

 

Careful planning

The secret of a successful Christmas is in the planning. The importance of support from friends and family, as well as outside services, can’t be over-emphasised. It’s better for the whole family to work out a plan for the festive period and introduce the changes gradually.

Autistic people can find change difficult, so plan and discuss Christmas in advance. Consider the aspects you’re looking forward to, but also consider what might be a cause for concern. When possible, share your plan with other family members and friends who will be spending the festive period with you.

Many people with autism say not knowing what to expect each day on a regular basis, causing a break in their routine, can make them stressed. Some parents and family members have found visual aids are helpful, such as a calendar to mark off the countdown to Christmas and what to expect that day, or lists and schedules of the plans.

If you have an autistic child, liaise with their school and college, or your support team, to make sure the same approach and strategies are used both at home and at school, so that the preparations for Christmas begin at the same time.

 

Sensory overload

Christmas can be a time of sensory overload for an autistic person, causing distress. Have a quiet space in your home where an autistic family member can take a break if they start feeling overwhelmed. It should be a Christmas-free zone that is available around the main festive days, such as Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

Make sure your child or teen knows they can retreat to their room at any time, even during Christmas Dinner, should the presence of lots of family and friends become overwhelming. Don’t make them feel trapped, or that they have to stay and socialise.

Some people with autism have said that having earplugs helps, so they can sit quietly away from the hustle and bustle.

A tip from autistic adults is that they even take earplugs when attending family parties or work Christmas parties. If the event is in a strange place, such as a hotel, they note where the nearest public toilet is, so they can make a quick escape if they start to feel anxious.

 

Christmas lights

Autistic people will have varying sensory needs, so while some will love the sparkling Christmas lights and decorations, others will struggle. Working on your own personal action plan, decide which are the most suitable decorations, how many to have and where they should go.

Christmas smells, such as scented candles, can be particularly overwhelming sensory-wise and it may be best to avoid them altogether. Flashing fairy lights may also become a little visually overpowering, but subtle and static tree lights may be acceptable.

Stagger putting up the decorations – for example, put the tree up one day, but leave decorating it until the next. Decorate it in stages – for example, baubles one day, then tinsel and then lights. Leave any other decorations for a later date.

Always leave some areas of the home completely free from decorations. A tip from parents with autistic children is to let them enjoy the Christmas window displays and lights on the high street from the upper floor of the bus, so they can have a good view, without the stress of being jostled in the crowds.

 

Presents

The concept of unwrapping surprise gifts on Christmas morning can be overwhelming. The whole process, from the expectation of receiving presents in the build-up to Christmas, to the number of gifts and the response to receiving and unwrapping them, can prove to be a little too much to cope with.

Think carefully about how you talk about the notion of Father Christmas to young children. Explain it in a simple way that they can comprehend. Try to avoid the concept of the “naughty list” and the “good list” – this can cause stress if the child takes it literally.

One family spoke of how their Christmas was “revolutionised” after they realised their autistic son spent weeks worrying every year that he was on the naughty list and that there would be no presents at all for him.

If you think a large pile of presents may be overwhelming, discuss this with other family members and set a limit together. A couple of presents from parents and grandparents and money from other relatives could be the solution. Alternatively, you can introduce presents one at a time, rather than all at once, or even stagger them throughout the Christmas period.

Some autistic people don’t like surprises, so it might be an idea to discuss what presents they want and plan in advance. If your child has a specific Christmas list, it could be best to stick to it. Consider how to wrap the presents: rather than having them in a multitude of coloured paper and sparkly accessories, try putting them in a plain gift bag.

Families with an autistic child suggest playing games all year round to prepare the kids for Christmas, such as practicing unwrapping presents, wearing silly hats and pulling crackers so that the sudden “bang” isn’t upsetting. This way, the events of Christmas morning are the norm.

 

Christmas dining

A massive Christmas dinner with items of food that are unusual may be a source of distress for an autistic person. Parents have spoken of spending all Christmas Day cooking a fabulous dinner, only to end up cooking chicken nuggets because their child won’t eat anything else.

A change in routine, such as not eating at the regular time, can also be upsetting. If you struggle to persuade your child to sit at the table and dine at the best of times, Christmas dinner, when other family members may be present, can make this behaviour more pronounced.

If you envisage problems, it’s far better to explain to your guests in advance that your child may not sit at the table, so that no-one has any unrealistic expectations. Put a place at the dinner table for your child right next to you, but ensure they have some toy they enjoy with them, such as a hand-held gaming console, so that if they feel stressed, they have something to do.

If they begin to feel very uncomfortable, let them know they don’t have to sit there and take them to their designated quiet place to relax and calm down.

If they won’t eat their meal or want a particular set of crockery and cutlery, provide what they want and let them have the food they ask for, so they can at least join the party, if they feel like doing so.

If you’ve gone to another friend or family member’s home for dinner, explain in advance that it’s not a reflection on their cooking if your child won’t eat what’s been prepared, so they won’t feel offended.

Having a Merry Christmas, as with most aspects of life, is all about careful advance planning. Although the festive period can be challenging, it can also be rewarding and a lot of fun.

Kinderkey supplies special needs beds and disabled beds UK-wide. Our safe sleeping solutions are suitable for autistic people of all ages. Please contact us for further details.

The Kinderkey team would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Loving and Peaceful New Year.

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