Christmas can be such a magical time if you have children. There’s the excitement of the build-up, Santa visits, the school Christmas play and making crafts, cards and gifts. And then there’s the big day itself; seeing the look of joy on the kid’s faces as they open their presents; enjoying a delicious family Christmas dinner; visiting family, playing games, eating food and having a happy, family time. I certainly have fond memories of my childhood Christmases and I was looking forward to recreating them with my own children.
However, Christmas in an autism household can be an entirely different ball game.
This time of year can be incredibly overwhelming for children who may not cope well with changes to routines, or who find they are hypersensitive to all the lights, sounds and smells associated with the season. The trouble is, Christmas is pretty hard to avoid, as by mid-November, it’s absolutely everywhere. Here are some ways in which autistic children can find Christmas challenging, and the ways you can try to help them (and you!) through it.
Challenge #1: The fact that it isn’t actually Christmas yet
One of the biggest challenges that we have faced this year is that Tink absolutely LOVES Christmas, and doesn’t cope well with the fact that it’s not happening RIGHT NOW! She doesn’t have a good concept of time and she’s tricky to reason with. She’s been asking if it’s Christmas since early summer, which is both frustrating for her and draining for us, and we’ve reached the point where she’s now telling me, “stop saying Christmas won’t be long all the time!”
How to help: Visuals can be great here. If the Christmas obsession starts early in the year, as in our case, a simple calendar showing the seasons, or months can help; make sure it’s clear that Christmas is in Winter/December and show some events in the seasons/months before to help them understand that these events happen first. Once December finally arrives, you could try an advent calendar to help them count down, or use a calendar with empty squares except for Christmas day, which they can cross out, or add a sticker to. If it works better, add in any special occasions such as birthdays, or the school disco, or a Santa visit to give a sense of time. I’ve included a printable below – just click on the image to download.
Challenge #2: Changes to routines
Isn’t it funny how one day can cause so much chaos to our routines?! For an autistic child, this can cause huge anxiety. School routines are different, with nativity rehearsals, Christmas dinner, a more relaxed feel to the end of the term, people in costumes or not in uniform, and so on. At home things might be slightly different too, with perhaps more visits to family and friends, events and activities to go to and, suddenly there’s a tree in the house and it’s covered in lights and shiny things! All of this change in a few short weeks can be very overwhelming.
How to help: If at all possible, make changes gradually. For example, if you think your child might not like a sudden change to the living room decor, then add one thing at a time, and use visuals to help them understand what’s happening. Encourage them to be a part of the change by helping you to add decorations to the tree, or by making some of their own. At school, teachers can also use visual timetables to help children understand that there will be new things coming and again, a softly-softly approach is best if possible. Don’t forget to help them prepare for the change back again once Christmas is over too! Be accommodating of the child’s needs and understanding of their anxieties and that the unfamiliarity can be scary for them, which may present itself in different behaviours.
Challenge #3: Santa
A visit to Santa has become something of a tradition; we thing it’s magical for our children to be able to tell the big man himself what it is they would like for Christmas. But for many children, and especially those on the autism spectrum, going to a strange place (or worse, a familiar place that is decorated differently and doesn’t look the same as it should) and meeting a strange man in a bright red outfit with a big white beard hiding his face can be fairly terrifying!
How to help: Firstly, seriously consider not even going there with the whole ‘Santa is real’ thing. Thinking ahead to the future, how will your child cope when they finally realise that one man can not get around the world delivering presents in one night? Or, how will you handle it if, at the age of 23, your child still believes? If your child doesn’t seem keen on Santa, there are several places and charities who run ‘Sensory Santa’ sessions for children with additional needs. These sessions are usually low-key, and often can be adapted for children’s individual needs. In previous years, we’ve visited Square Peg’s Sensory Santa, which involved some craft and messy play activities before visiting a very gentle Santa inside the sensory bus, which was dark and full of sensory play items and lights. However, if you don’t have one of these sessions near you, and your child isn’t keen on visiting Santa, just don’t bother! After all, he’s magic, so he’ll know what to bring on Christmas day whether you tell him or not…
Challenge #4: Sensory overwhelm
Christmas can be a complete assault on the senses; there are lots of lights, often twinkling, flashing and multicoloured, there are more sounds, such as songs with jingle bells running through them, and people singing carols all over the place. There can even be strange smells and tastes to contend with, with people baking cakes and cookies, cooking sprouts and pigs-in-blankets and eating mince pies and stollen. Some children love to see all the lights, but for others, it can all be a bit too much.
How to help: Again, advance preparation can really help here, with a gradual introduction of lights and decorations if possible to allow time to adjust. It can be hard to avoid when out and about, so make sure you have ear defenders in case it gets too noisy or the music becomes unbearable (Mistletoe and Wine, anyone?) and consider sunglasses to lessen the effects of the lights. If your child shows an interest in trying some of the festive foods, then great, but if they want fish fingers and chips for Christmas dinner (because that’s pretty much all they’ll eat), then that’s fine too – after all, who decided we all must eat turkey and sprouts anyway?
Challenge #5: Family
It’s a well-known fact that in many cases, family + Christmas = friction. Add in a drop of autism and Christmas time can become a time of stress when it comes to spending time with family. If you have family members who don’t ‘get’ autism, then their expectations for a happy, family visit may be a little off. Children with autism can quickly become overwhelmed by unfamiliar surroundings and people, or even just by the combination of people, new toys, sensory stimulation and a change of routine. This can lead to behaviour which may be seen as naughty or rude by others who aren’t as familiar with your child. Plus, autistic children aren’t usually known for their tact, and will quite happily tell Auntie Joan that the present she spent a fortune on is not what they wanted – while you cringe and wish the sofa would swallow you.
How to help: Lower expectations – that is, yours and those of the people you will be visiting. Educate them; explain to them the potential challenges your child faces on these occasions and that if they appear rude, it’s just a barrier they have put up to try to protect themselves. Explain that your visit may be cut short in order to prevent a meltdown or other unwanted behaviours. Make sure you take a bag full of things to keep your child occupied and happy; we rarely go anywhere without a tablet and some Paw Patrol figures! Let your child know that they can go and find a safe, quiet space if they need to (and check with your host that this is ok and find out the best place for this!).
Challenge #6: Presents
Presents. Because that’s what Christmas is all about now, isn’t it? We despair at the commercialisation of the season, and yet, we perpetuate it by spending ever-increasing amounts on toys and games that are only played with for a few days before being cast aside for older favourites. Anyway, that’s my Christmas rant over! Presents can be a big deal in an autism household. It can be difficult for a child with autism to understand that there is not an endless pot of money and they can’t actually have “all the Paw Patrol toys, all the Top Wing toys, all the PJ Masks toys, and Nella the Princess Knight’s shield.” (Tink, I’m looking at you here!) There can also be an issue with friends and families not knowing what to buy for your child, or buying gifts that, although in the right age range for your child, may not be suitable or appropriate for their level of development. Some children become overwhelmed at the thought of receiving presents and the fact they have to wait until Christmas day, and others just aren’t aware or bothered about them anyway!
How to help: Try making it clear that there is a finite amount of gifts from you/Santa. This year I told Tink she could choose 5 things to put on her list, and then I wrote it down in front of her. You could use a catalogue or pictures from stores on the internet, printed and cut out to compile a list too. If she asks for something else, I tell her “it’s not on the list” and give her the choice of adding it, but removing something else. When it comes to other people buying presents for your child, don’t be afraid to tell them what to get, even if they don’t ask! There’s no point them getting something that your child won’t like or be interested in, and you may be able to suggest things they’d never otherwise think of that will be much more useful or much more appropriate/less dangerous. If your child is struggling to wait until Christmas morning to open their gifts, consider giving one, two, or a few smaller gifts in the run-up to the day itself to stop the complete and utter overwhelm of the anticipation.
Challenge #7: When it’s all over
Of course, one of the biggest challenges about Christmas is that it has to end. I’m sure Tink wishes it was Christmas every day (I wonder if Noddy Holder is autistic??), but all good things must come to an end at some point. This can be problematic for the child who has just spent a month getting used to all the changes happening around them, only for it to all change back again somewhat unexpectedly.
How to help: Prepare your child for the fact that Christmas is over. Again, visuals can be your friend here, and a calendar or timetable showing that Christmas is ‘finished’ might be helpful. You could also use this to show them that they will be returning to school shortly too. You will know best how your child will respond to the change in surroundings, so you might either remove decorations slowly so that it’s barely noticeable, or it might be better to do it all in one go so that the distinction between ‘Christmas’ and ‘not Christmas’ is more obvious. The lack of presents appearing can also cause issues; perhaps keep one or two back and give them in the week following Christmas to lessen the impact!
At the end of the day, as we know, our children are all so individual and react differently to each of these challenges. It can be trial and error for a while until you find the best way to help them manage. Some children will sail through the festive season without a care or a worry, while others will find it just too much and become so anxious that we all wish it was over already.
Be guided by your child; while it’s good to try to encourage them to try new things, if you feel the consequences will outweigh any potential benefits, then it’s just not worth it. It’s perfectly reasonable to not visit Santa, or eat turkey, or wear an itchy costume for the play. I’m sure Auntie Joan would rather have a calm visit from you in January rather than a fraught pre-Christmas one that has to be cut short. If you want to do a present every day instead of a big pile on Christmas morning, then that’s fine! You do youand don’t worry about what other people think to your way of doing Christmas.
What particular challenges do you face at Christmas? Do you have any more tips for dealing with them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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!