It’s that time of year when schools up and down the land are frantically practising their Christmas productions ready to perform to proud parents and grandparents. Lines are being rehearsed, costumes loving sewn (or bought from Amazon/Ebay) and the kids insist on singing ‘Little Donkey’ at least 67 times a day. However, for some children, the Christmas play or carol service can be an incredibly daunting time. There are various reasons for this:
- Sensory overload
- Unfamiliar routines
- New things to learn
- New things to wear
- The pressure of performance
… To name a few. Here are some things parents, and the teaching staff, can do to help a child with autism to manage at this time of year.
Christmas Play Tip #1
Reduce the pressure, but don’t exclude. It’s often the case that children with SEN are excluded from taking part in productions, with reasons given including ‘attention issues’, but really we all know that it’s because our children can be so unpredictable and the school don’t want the performance ‘ruined’ by the child who may not conform. This is discrimination. If you lower the demands on the child, there’s a chance they’ll manage just fine – and who doesn’t love an imperfect Nativity anyway? On the flip side, if your child is able to express their desire not to take part, this should be respected too; if your child is so self-aware that they know it could all go horribly wrong if they’re made to do it, then chalk that up as a huge win!
Christmas Play Tip #2
The change in routines at this time of year can cause havoc to a child with autism. The security of the usual school day is gone, and the resulting anxiety can manifest itself in unwanted behaviours. This then perpetuates the belief that the child won’t cope with the performance, when really, with some timely planning, the upheaval could have mostly been avoided. Use visual planners and timetables in good time to help the child understand that there will be changes. Be sensitive to their reactions to change in order to help them manage.
Christmas Play Tip #3
New things to learn and wear, as well as the change in routine can cause a child to go into a highly anxious state. It’s a good idea to introduce costumes early on in the rehearsal stages so the child can get used to seeing and feeling them. It’s no good waiting until the dress rehearsal and discovering that the fabric of the shepherd’s outfit is too scratchy and causes a meltdown! Similarly, having new songs and lines of dialogue to learn is daunting too. Most schools start practising early, which is helpful, but perhaps go one step further if the child is particularly anxious about ‘getting it wrong’ and let them have the words and songs on a CD or download to listen to at home too.
Christmas Play Tip #4
Sensory overload can be huge at this time of year. There are more lights, sounds, and smells that weren’t there before; there are people everywhere; the music is too loud, the singing too harsh, the movement of the performers too distracting… It’s easy to see how a child with sensory processing difficulties can become quickly overwhelmed. Try to put regular sensory breaks in place so that the child has chance to regulate. Use ear defenders to help block out some sound, and fidget toys to give them something to focus on while they’re sitting waiting for their turn to perform. Be understanding if the costume is just too unbearable and have a back-up costume-that’s-not-a-costume in place if possible.
Christmas Play Tip #5
The pressure of performance can be just too huge for children who react badly to making mistakes, especially in front of others. Just the thought of having to stand up in front of all those parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles can cause massive anxiety, and throw singing and speaking into the mix and for some children, it’s just too much. One thing to try is to gradually increase the audience when rehearsing, where possible. Again, visuals are useful to help explain what’s going to happen. It can be helpful to have a familiar adult with them or very nearby on the day too. But, ultimately, if the child becomes so anxious about performing that they can’t be persuaded, then leave it. It’s not worth the pain of a meltdown, particularly a public one.
So, with some proper planning and consideration, children on the spectrum can be fully involved in the Christmas play and don’t have to be excluded – unless it’s their choice.
Has your child ever been excluded in this way? What other tips would you add to the list to help an autistic child to manage the school Christmas play? I’d love to know your thoughts!
For a light-hearted look at the school nativity, read this!
Kelly is a mother of two – her son H and daughter Tink. H is home educated, Tink is autistic. Kelly is a self-employed Virtual Assistant… Life is busy!