We LOVE Christmas at Toby House! But if you visit us in December, you might notice that we keep Christmas low key. We have a small tree, and just a few decorations here and there. Mostly, we just keep on doing what we always do with the children who use our services. That’s for a very good reason.
Most of us welcome the change to our daily routine that Christmas brings. We enjoy seasonal foods and drinks. Seeing friends and family. Giving and receiving presents. Seeing lights twinkle, hearing carols sung, and even joining the throngs of shoppers in town.
However, all those things can cause sensory overload for children on the autism spectrum, leading to discomfort or even distress. And that can be a source of discomfort and distress for the people around them.
If you want to make December autism-friendly, you may have to shelve the idea of a traditional, Instagram-ready Christmas. But with some planning and flexibility, you can make it a happy holiday. Here’s how.
- Give your child a visual aid to help them count down to the big day. Children with autism crave predictability. They also sometimes have trouble with the concept of time. A minute might seem like an hour, and a week is hard to imagine. Advent calendars are perfect for this!
- Make a calendar for the season, showing all the changes they can expect. December, with events and visits, usually brings changes to your normal weekly and daily routines. Your calendar could include things like when Grandma is coming to stay, when the decorations go up, when the tree is taken down, when school starts again.
- Talk about Christmas. Discuss all the things that make it different and special. Read books about Christmas. And look at photos of your children taken at past Christmases.
- Make a social story. These are short, descriptions of a situation, event or activity. They’re usually illustrated and include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why. For advice on how to make them, ask us for our leaflet, or see the NAS website. A social story about Christmas Day could include a schedule of what will happen that day, along with photos of friends and family they will see, foods they will eat, and information about social conventions. A social story about visiting Santa could be the difference between a catastrophe and a Kodak moment.
- Get them involved. Somehow new things are less intimidating when you’ve helped plan and prepare them. What would your child enjoy helping with? Writing cards? Decorating the tree? Making food? Wrapping gifts? Making a seating plan? Thinking up a menu?
- Pack a to-go kit. What do you need to make leaving the house easier? Ear defenders, fidget toys, a favourite blanket, a drink, snacks, baby wipes, books, iPad, toys? Pack everything you need into a bag and keep it stocked so that you don’t have the last-minute stress of finding it all. Or worse, the horror of discovering you’ve forgotten the ear defenders when you get to the party.
ROUTINES AND SCHEDULES
- Keep to your usual daily routines as much as you can to maintain predictability. People on the autism spectrum need to know what to expect. Daily routines help them to stay calm.
- Make schedules for non-routine days in whatever format works best for you child. You’ll have to stick to it though if you want to avoid distress and meltdown, so make it achievable.
- Include a favourite daily Christmas activity in your child’s routine and do it at the same time each day, like switching on the tree lights, or blowing out the candles.
- Remind your child what’s coming up at regular intervals. First, we’ll do this, then we’ll do that. Tell them how long it will take.
- Use a timer or clock so your child knows how long each activity will last. Don’t extend the timer after you’ve set it. Not even secretly. They need to be able to trust it.
- Make sure your child knows about changes to the routine well in advance.
- Don’t feel like you have to stick to someone else’s routine if it doesn’t work for your child. This is very likely to lead to a meltdown. It’s better to ask other people to be flexible than to expect your child with autism to adapt on the fly.
- When you have a routine that works, stick with it! Finding a Christmas routine for your family might take a trial and error over a few years. And yours might end up looking odd to others. For example, you might spread out opening presents over a few days. Or you might only have your tree up for one day. But if it works, do it again.
- Don’t overschedule your child. While it’s tempting to pack as much fun into your time off as you can, it can all be too much when you have autism. Make sure they have plenty of space between activities. And provide lots of transition time and down time.
VISITORS AND VISITING
- Talk to friends and family before visits. Explain what autism is, and what accommodations are needed and why. Tell them what your plan for the day or the visit is. They might be disappointed or disapproving or not understand. This is especially likely if you are breaking with convention or tradition to make your child’s day more pleasant. As one of our mums says, “If relations come to your house they do Christmas your way!” It will help everyone to have a nicer day in the end.
- Ask people to phone ahead before visiting you so there are no surprise visits.
- Show your child photos of the people he/she will be seeing beforehand. It can be hard enough dealing with lots of people. It’s even worse if you don’t know who they are when they cuddle you!
- Leave ample time to travel to where you are going. Arriving stressed, flustered will make your child stressed and flustered. If possible, include some transition time before joining an event. Five minutes in the car once you’ve arrived, for example.
- Give your child plenty of notice of transitions to new activities. So, give a ten-minute warning before dinner, or leaving Grandmas house.
- Have a quiet room that your child can retreat to when it all gets too much. Whether at home or visiting, give your child the opportunity to escape when they need to.
- Give your child a job to do when you have visitors, like refilling the nibbles, or hanging up coats. Having something else to focus on can distract from the stress of having lots of people in your space.
- Plan your exit. Can you leave if your child can’t cope anymore? Can you take two cars, or use public transport so the rest of the family or group can stay?
- Ignore well-meant advice, or even blatant criticism from other people. You know what’s best for your child. They have little idea of what you and your child are dealing with. Smile and offer them another mince pie.
FOOD AND SENSORY ISSUES
- Try holiday foods in advance. That way you can see what your child likes and doesn’t like. (Avoiding those awkward moments when they spit their Christmas pudding out into your hand.) It can also give you a chance to discover any cooking smells that may be too overpowering for your child.
- Take your child’s favourite foods with you when you eat outside your home.
- Let your child eat what they usually eat on Christmas Day if that will make them happier. If they are used to a sandwich and fruit for lunch, or the 25th falls on ‘chicken nuggets night’ then just go with that.
- Have a buffet instead of a traditional Christmas Dinner. That way everyone gets to eat the food they like, at their own pace.
- Practice wearing ‘special clothes’ beforehand. A new outfit for Christmas day or an event might feel all different and just not right. Party clothes aren’t often very comfortable and children on the spectrum can be particularly sensitive to things like seams and scratchy fabrics. Have a few dress rehearsals before the day.
- Let your child wear their everyday clothes. Those old jogging bottoms and a favourite T-shirt are perfect Christmas outfits if they make your child feel more comfortable.
- Look for autism-friendly or ‘relaxed’ Christmas events near you. Cinemas, museums, theatres, book shops, and local autism charities may have events where sensory input is kept as low as possible and everyone taking part is in the same sort of boat as you. We’re hosting a special Christmas Sunday lunch this year. And if we know of any other events, we’ll tweet about them.
- Take something to help deal with the noise, like ear defenders, an iPod or earplugs. Church services, parties and concerts can be nightmarish to those with hearing sensitivity.
- Be aware of things that make loud noises, like Christmas crackers and party poppers. Ask if people can not use them when your child is nearby, or if they can give you or your child a warning before they do.
- Sit near the exits or on the end or rows of seats at events so you can easily leave if your child is struggling.
- Call ahead before visiting someone to discuss small, temporary changes that can be made to reduce your child’s sensory overload. Can the barking dogs be kept somewhere else while you are there? Can the music be turned off or kept low? Can the flashing lights be on the calmest setting, and can they put away that loud musical Santa?
- Don’t put up all the decorations while your child is not at home. Coming home to find the house looking completely different could be very upsetting.
- Decorate gradually. For example, put the tree up one day, and decorate it over a couple of days. Add other things a bit at a time.
- Take all the decorations down gradually too.
- Get your child to choose decorations and help you to put them up. They might find it easier to cope with their surroundings looking different if they made some of the changes themselves.
- Avoid decorations that may be too stimulating or distracting. Flashing lights or having lots of things hanging from the walls or ceiling might just be too much. Although it might not feel as Christmassy to you, keeping it minimal could help your child stay calm.
- Consider decorating just one room in the house. Or keeping the twinkliest and noisiest things away from the areas your child uses every day.
- Unwrap gifts gradually. Opening lots of presents at once on Christmas morning can be overwhelming. So much so that it becomes a tearful rather than happy experience. Unwrap gifts in a timeframe that your child is comfortable with. That could be one or two presents at a time throughout Christmas day, or over a week or two.
- Consider limiting how many gifts your child gets. Having lots of presents could be quite stressful, no matter how far apart they are unwrapped. Perhaps have one present each from closest family members, and ask others to give money or gift vouchers. This might seem like a terrible idea to people who enjoy giving your child gifts. But if this really will make Christmas easier for your child, be brave and suggest it.
- Remember that some children with autism don’t like surprises. Although it may seem strange to you, you could let them know what’s in the gift before they unwrap it. You could wrap their gifts together with them, or even leave them unwrapped.
- Make gifts ‘good to go’ before you wrap them. Lots of autistic children find it difficult to wait. They’re also suspicious of new things. By the time you’ve undone all the twisty ties on that box, read the instructions, constructed the toy, and put the batteries in it, your child might be so frustrated that they will reject it.
- Watch out for noisy wrapping paper. Some types, like the plastic metallic sort, can be quite loud.
- Hide presents somewhere else until the big day. Seeing presents under the tree for days or even weeks before the 25th might be too much for children with a poor concept of time.
- Practice saying thank you. Pretending to like gifts you’re disappointed with is quite a skill! Some people on the autism spectrum might never quite get the hang of it. If your child is verbal, or uses Makaton, practice the socially appropriate responses. But accept (and explain) if they reject a gift or make it clear they don’t like it.
- Take some time to relax and treat yourself. You deserve it! Christmas, especially for mums, is often about pampering and looking after others. You’ll be better at that when you make time to pamper and look after yourself too.
- Try to get back to your normal schedule a few days before the new term starts so that the transition back to school is easier.
- If things go wrong, be okay with that being okay. Your child might get upset, upset others, refuse to take part, insist on going home, throw a present in the bin. If you know what went wrong and it’s fixable, then try to fix it next year. And if it isn’t, let it go. There is no law that says you should do Christmas a certain way, no matter how much Aunty Mavis tuts. In the words of the wise Dr Seuss: “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
- Celebrate the season your way. The holiday season is meant to be a time for fun and relaxation. If the things you have to do to make it fun and relaxing seem odd to other people, don’t mind them. There’s no official Christmas rule book.
- Remembember this is not a to-do list. Or a list of do’s and don’ts. These are simply suggestions – made by us, and some of the parents whose children we work with – which you may want to try. There’s more than one way to live a family life and equally more than one way to enjoy an ASD family Christmas. We hope yours is wonderful!