Rebecca’s Guide to Christmas with Autistic Children
It's the most wonderful time of the year...but can also be the most anxiety-inducing for many young autistic individuals, and their families:
An overwhelming array of smells, glitter, lights, jumpers (and old decorations that have spent the last 11 months in a dusty loft!) assault our senses. Add this to the pressure to be having the 'glossy' Christmas you see on the TV, and adults around are slightly more jittery.
Many autistic individuals are very in tune with the emotions of others. Previously there was a misconception that autism meant you lacked empathy, however our understanding now is that it is often quite the opposite - you may feel too much. And Christmas can definitely be a time of feeling too much!
What can we do?
Many young people find the element of surprise difficult with presents. This can be a tricky one for parents (or more often, the wider family) to come to terms with, as children are 'meant' to love presents. It may just be that with a few tweaks, the present receiving process can be less stressful.
Some children will need to know what is inside the box, and having it wrapped in paper that conceals its identity, is too anxiety-inducing. So perhaps just a ribbon around it (no wrapping paper), or if wrapped, a photo on the label to show what is inside.
It probably goes without saying, but waiting for these presents again may be difficult, so it may be best to unveil them on Christmas morning rather than your child having to look at them longingly for days before Christmas comes!
Reacting to Presents
Another difficulty with receiving presents is knowing how to react to a gift that you may or may not like. Going through possible scripts of what to do and what to say, may help your young person feel less anxious, as they know there is a plan.
For example, what can you say when Grandad gives you socks, but you know that the seams on socks are unbelievably uncomfortable and you will never wear them (plus you have quite enough socks already!)? This may need to be written down, or drawn out into a comic strip conversation with speech bubbles.
You can also use this technique to support your child to think about what you can do with your face and body when you open this present. How can you show other people that you are grateful for their kind thought?
December usually marks the start of a general air of chaos in schools, from concert rehearsals to off-timetable activities. Trying to gather as much information as possible from school will help you to prepare your young person for these changes. Then, with your young person, mark out these events on a month to view calendar.
You can also mark on the calendar, days in school and days at home. Often the young person just gets used to the school holidays when it's time to go back again! With a calendar, they can mark off each day when they go to bed and count down how many days until the weekend/Christmas holidays/back to school. Equally important as planning for Christmas decorations going up, is planning for them coming down. One you are mid-way through January, it's like it never happened!
In among the 'fun' Christmas activities, the usual routine often goes out the window. It may be worth creating a ‘holidays routine’, particularly for bedtimes, so that although these will often be later than usual, they will still follow a pattern and have some predictability. It may be that you give two hour window for bedtime e.g. between 7 and 9. Having said that, sometimes life gets in the way and we can’t follow the plan – here it is about giving your child as much understanding of what has changed and why, and reassurance that normal service will resume!
There are many more social demands being placed on everyone during the Christmas period and so there may need to be an element of 'choose your battles'. Yes your neighbours/classmates/school parent groups (insert social event of choice) may have invited you to a Christmas party, but is going to three in one week going to push everyone over the edge?
Some parents like to choose one goal and just work towards this. If you are keen to go to an event but you know they may struggle, think about what you can do to help them. Can you agree with the venue and young person, a 'place of peace' for your child to go to if they need some time to self-regulate (somewhere quiet and low arousal where they can have a break)? You can do this at family parties and events too. A quiet room, or even a quiet corner, can help.
Can you agree with the young person a secret signal between the two of you to know when things are getting a 'bit much'?
Bringing along a box of sensory calming objects such as theraputty or fiddle toys or having a calming video to watch may be useful here.
How can you prepare your child in advance for what is going to happen, how long it will last and who is going to be there? Drawing out a schedule of events is often helpful. If they can tell the time, you can give them a time as a cut-off point, but don't be tempted to try your luck and stay longer if things are going well - the visual is legally binding! You can of course explain this change visually but don't expect them not to notice if you change the plan without warning!
Alternatively, you could draw/write a plan for the day e.g...
Go to grandmas house
Say hello to everyone and wave (or agree a greeting that they are comfortable with)
Play some games
Have lunch and Christmas crackers
Have some chill out time
Have tea and cake
Say goodbye and wave
Play Minecraft (or another activity that they enjoy)
It very much depends on your child but some children will become very anxious in trying to prepare for social situations and knowing what to say. Going through some possible conversation topics/responses to questions may also be useful here and could be drawn out together with your child:
Alternatively it may be more about explaining your child's preferences to others around them. This can seem a little daunting but many people are very keen to help if they are told what to do - the barrier is often not knowing or understanding.
If you have a school pupil 'passport' for your child, perhaps you could create a home version with your young person, to share with family and friends. Letting the child lead on this gives them ownership of it and develops their skills in explaining their likes and dislikes. It could be as simple as:
"Try to give me time to process what you have said and respond before asking me something else.
Use my name to cue me in - if you're talking generally I might not know it's directed at me.
I may need some social-detox time out of the room but I will come back and join you when I feel ready to.
Don't give me sprouts!"
An autistic adult told me that she now plans for red and green days. Green days are when she has to do something very sociable, such as going to a conference. These are always followed by protected red days, where there are no expectations for her to do anything. Often she will do something on these days, but knowing that there wasn't anything she had to do relieves her anxiety.
In summary, prepare as much as possible and try to increase your young person's social understanding. Give them as much of a sense of control as possible and don't feel pressured by images of 'perfect' Christmases. Make it work for you and enjoy your family Christmas, your way.
Useful Resources For You!
Click on the links below. Pages will open in a new window.
(lots of schools use this but you can sign up for a free home account as well)