Christmas and New Year can be a time of great excitement for most children, and this can include children who have autism. However, just because something is fun doesn’t mean it won’t be problematic. Christmas is a time of great change, and transition. We go from our ordinary, everyday lives to something completely different.
In fact over the Christmas period just about everything changes: the house looks different because we decorate it, and have a tree indoors (?) we often eat different foods, we have time away from our usual routine of work/school/college, we have more people around to our houses for visits, and we visit other people more often, and many new things are brought in to our homes by way of presents – this can be overwhelming for anyone, but if you are a person with autism the chances are you will experience a sensory overload, and an emotional overload due to the disruption in your routine, and the bombardment of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells.
Most people in the autism community know that sensory and emotional overload can lead to meltdowns/shutdowns, and that these can be exhausting and extremely distressing for all concerned. So, what can we do to minimise the risk, and make Christmas and New Year a less stressful, and even enjoyable experience for our loved ones with autism? Below are a few tips that I used with my son when he was younger.
- Help your child to learn all about Christmas – why we celebrate it, what will happen, what will change. I used to write this down with my son and we would draw, and colour in pictures, as people with autism often appreciate information being presented visually.
- Create a visual countdown to Christmas to help relieve anxiety, and the constant questioning from your child of `when` and `how long now`. I used to draw snowmen which my son would colour, paint, stick cotton wool on etc. and we would cut them out and line them up on the wall, removing one each day until Christmas Eve.
- Involve your child in the decorating of the house and the tree if they are happy to do this. Don’t let them come home from school one day to find everything has changed! You don’t need to dress the tree or put up the decorations all in one go – you can do it over a period of days or even weeks, giving your autistic child chance to get used to the changes gradually.
- Keep the decorations low-key if your child with autism really struggles with sensory issues – if you also have neuro-typical children then maybe they could have fun decorating their bedrooms with lots of tinsel and colour, and the family spaces could be toned-down for the benefit of your child with autism.
- Don’t force your child to be around visitors if they don’t want to be – allow them to leave the room, and have a quiet space just for them whenever they need this.
- Equally, don’t force your child to do lots of visiting – if at all possible, arrange for them to stay home while you visit relatives, friends, and so on. If they do want to go with you then make sure you have a set time to arrive and leave, and don’t tempted to push this.
- Make sure friends and family let you know in advance if they are planning to visit your home so you can prepare your child with autism.
- Leave a polite note on your front door if Carol singers are likely to be an issue – As with Halloween, the constant knocking of local children can be very stressful for people who are sensitive to sound. Just ask them not to knock. You can always leave a dish with sweets in as a `thanks, but no thanks` message for them.
- Don’t bombard your child with too many Christmas gifts in one go – some autistic people prefer to receive no presents, or only one. If your child doesn’t like presents, or doesn’t like too many in one go then advise family members/friends of other ways of giving such as money/vouchers for the child to spend on their special interest for example, or to put toward horse-riding lessons, or something else they will enjoy.
- Don’t wrap your child`s presents – autistic people may not like surprises, and may prefer to see the present straight away, and do away with the element of surprise. Also, the paper may be too bright and shiny for them. If they do like their present/presents wrapped, but have sensory issues then make your own wrapping paper, or get the child to make it – this way you will know it`s ok for them – just colour in, or decorate normal paper/brown paper, and use this instead.
- Don’t force the child to say `Happy Christmas` if they are not comfortable with this. It is unfair to try to make your child behave in a more socially acceptable way than they are comfortable with. It doesn’t matter if they don’t wish people a happy Christmas, or even if they don’t say `thank you` for their cards or gifts – you can always help them to make thank you cards in the weeks after Christmas, when it`s all over and they are feeling calmer. I always did this with my son.
- Don’t be disappointed if your child doesn’t want to try new foods – with all the changes that are already taking place Christmas is probably the worse time to expect your child with autism to try new foods. If they want to try them, great – maybe put a small amount on a separate plate so it is not touching their usual food, and isn’t too over-facing for them. Otherwise, just let them eat their normal food; taste, texture, smell, colour are all food-related challenges for some people with autism – do you really want to throw this in to the mix along with everything else?
- Don’t be fooled by the lull between Christmas and New Year – after the explosion of sight, sound and colour of Christmas, and the complete change in routine, the person with autism may be feeling extremely overwhelmed. As things calm down a little in the week between Christmas and New Year you may think you are home-safe, but this is often the time when the autistic person – who has been holding in their feelings – may explode at what is seemingly a small, and unrelated event – for example you put the wrong jam on their toast – and boom! A major meltdown. Just be aware of this, and be patient.
- And then it all starts again at New Year! – don’t forget to prepare your child for New Year, in a similar way to preparing them for Christmas. For tips on how to prepare them for the noise of fireworks, and people in the street shrieking and shouting take a look at ASK-PERGERS? blog for Bonfire Night http://askpergers.wordpress.com/2014/11/02/bonfire-night/ Just a few tips though: try using ear defenders, playing calming music through headphones, or engaging your child in an activity you know they will enjoy, to distract them from the noise.
- Don’t forget to prepare your loved one with autism for the change back to everyday life – I created tips to help my son deal with the smaller, daily/weekly/monthly/yearly changes in life, and these techniques worked so well for him they were published in a book (see link below) Obviously I can`t relay all of the tips from the book in to this short article, but if I could emphasise just one to you it would be this one – parents often prepare their children for times of change in their calendar, such as Christmas, but they rarely remember to prepare them for the change back to normality. In my experience this is so, so important, and can cut down the likelihood of distress, and meltdowns significantly.
Well I hope you have enjoyed reading this article, and that you find some of ASK-PERGERS? tips for having a less stressful Christmas useful (notice I don’t say a `stress-free` Christmas?? – I`m good, but I`m not that good!!) I could probably have doubled this article in size, with lots more tips as Christmas and New Year can be such difficult times for autism families. However, you can always contact ASK-PERGERS? on Facebook or Twitter if you have any questions (links below)
All that remains is for me to wish you all a very happy Christmas, and a peaceful New Year! And to thank you for reading my article
Jane is the co-founder of ASK-PERGERS? a free advice service created by her and son Paddy-Joe. You can follow them Twitter or on Facebook
She is also the co-author with Paddy-Joe of the following books
TRANSITION TECHNIQUES book: http://jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781849052757
REWARD PLAN book: http://jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781843106227