Earlier in the year I wrote a blog article about going on holidays with children with special needs, in particular ASD. As the season of “Peace and Joy” is upon us I thought I would do something similar about Christmas.
I love Christmas, it is my favourite time of year. I love decorating my house, putting up the tree, buying and giving gifts to people, singing carols, and spending time with my loved ones. I love to have a house full of people and relish the opportunity to spend time with my family and friends. I’ve always loved Christmas, so was somewhat taken aback when it seemed that my children with autism DID NOT love Christmas. In fact they positively found it distressing.
Everything that was comforting and familiar went out the window and instead they were left with lots of noise, flashing lights, strange things called decorations all over their house, crowds of people that they didn’t see regularly, descending on our home and complete disruption to their normal life. Like everything else associated with having a child with autism, my pre-child imaginings about visits to Santa were not fulfilled. They found the stranger with the red costume and fake beard terrifying. It became impossible to do ordinary things like shopping because they hated the very busy environments. As the day approached my kids became more and more distressed and over stimulated.
If you stop and think about it then Christmas is a time of huge changes that can be confusing if you don’t understand them. Literally everything changes. Your routine alters completely, you no longer attend nursery/school/college, and your Mum and Dad aren’t following the normal patterns of their daily life. People come to visit that aren’t normally in your house. Your house can become loud and busy with lots of people everywhere. There is a massive green thing in the corner with shiny stuff on. Shops, streets, bus journeys, cinemas, bowling alleys, swimming pools and even parks become much busier. You even eat different food. The programmes on the television change. Then there is the matter of presents. The anticipation of what presents you will get can be too much. Some children don’t like the thought of not knowing what is inside those paper packages. Mine always found that too much. The surprise element was not good for them. By the time Christmas Eve came around they were always hyped up into a frenzy and we had meltdown upon meltdown before we even got to the big day.
So, I thought I would share some of the strategies that I used over the years that have made a massive difference to making it a festive season that worked for everyone. Some of these ideas are taken from the National Autistic Society website and some of these are my own ideas.
- Since we know that children with autism find any change of routine difficult it makes sense to prepare them for the changes that will take place in their lives. Use a calendar or visual timetable to prepare for Christmas, for specific events, to highlight school days and home days, or the night when Grandma is coming to sleep.
- Keep your daily schedule the same as far as possible, including on Christmas Day.
- Try and incorporate a Christmas activity that they enjoy into their daily schedule, e.g. opening the advent calendar, or switching on the tree lights. We always had to manage the chocolate advent calendar carefully and put it out of reach so that they weren’t all eaten by the 3rd December.
- Give them some Christmas-free time on their daily schedule – this could help you to observe anxiety levels and make any adaptations for the rest of the day.
- Talk about Christmas time and what this means for your family.
- Write a social story about Christmas. You could include pictures of Christmas trees, decorations and Christmas food and information about some of the things that you do over the Christmas period. Beware though that if your family member takes things very literally, they may become anxious if your Christmas does not appear exactly as the pictures. You can check out how to write social stories here on the Autism uk Website
- Prepare the person for specific events, e.g. by showing them a photo of a man dressed as Father Christmas, but if you children are like mine, avoid it altogether. That child friendly figure was terrifying for my kids so after 1 or 2 years we gave up trying (and saved ourselves a bit of money).
- You do not have to visit Santa. In fact you do not have to do anything at all. You don’t have to fit in. You can make your Christmas individual. You don’t have to follow the crowd. If doing so is so stressful that no-one enjoys it then maybe it’s time to rethink what you’re doing?
- Involve the person in changes to the house, e.g. take them shopping for decorations, let them handle decorations, let them see decorations being hung up, or let them help putting them up.
- Consider decorating gradually, for example, you could put the Christmas tree in position, decorate it the next day, then put up other decorations even later. There is a really lovely colourful semantics resource on our website called “Decorating a Christmas tree”. Check it out, I used it just the other day.
- Keep things that might overload them away from communal areas, such as flashing Christmas lights that could go in bedrooms rather than the living room.
- If they’re worried about Christmas then try to encourage them to share their concerns about by using a worry toy or try to help them by using a relaxation book.
- Schedule in some quiet times, so that they can relax. Give them quiet time with a favourite activity in a Christmas-free zone at key moments that may be stressful, such as when other people are opening their presents.
- Having a large number of presents could be overwhelming, so you can set a limit on the number of presents, for example, one from Mum and Dad and one from grandparents – other family members could perhaps give money. Or alternatively, you could introduce presents one by one, instead of all at once. Putting out a present next to a favourite item (e.g. a new toy next to a favourite toy) is a good idea.
- Leaving out presents unwrapped can be a good strategy to use if they find it hard to cope it with surprises.
- I always told my children what they would be getting because they found surprises too hard to cope with. That way the element of surprise was taken away and the anticipation and anxiety did not become too much for them.
- One of the strategies that was most successful for us was to let my children have a present on Christmas Eve. Because they knew what they would be getting they usually choose the thing they wanted the most. We found that Christmas Eve was the day with the most meltdowns and it was the anticipation for the big event that was the cause. So, letting them have a present to play with on that day really worked for them. I found it helped me too, because they were usually so happy to play with the new toy that it meant I could get tasks done like preparing the dreaded brussel sprouts for the next day.
- We always tried to break up family visits too, so that we only saw a few people at a time. That worked really well for us as it was less overwhelming.
- If like me you have neuro- typical children and you feel guilty about making so many adjustments that you spoil Christmas for them, then try to see if you can get some family help, so that you can spend some special one on one time with them and do something nice and Christmassy.
- What about after Christmas? We often concentrate so much on December 25th that we neglect the days between the 26th and when they go back to school. A strategy that always worked well for us was to plan some treats for this period. A trip to the cinema, walk in the countryside, or even a simple drive around looking at Christmas lights. Check out these Christmas light scavenger hunts
- Finally, make sure you find some time to put your feet up too.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Written by Alison Mann on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services