Christmas can be the highlight of the year; but for many families living with autism, the festive season can be very stressful, and not anything like the magical time all the Christmas songs promise.
We’ve put together this short Guide on our Top 12 Tips on how you can create an autism friendly Christmas in your home.
1 .‘Home, sweet home’
For a child who finds the outside world confusing and scary, their home is often the one place where everything is familiar; the place they can relax and know what to expect.
Start your Christmas preparations by putting yourself ‘in their shoes’, seeing the world from their perspective…
Can you imagine how they might feel when they finally leave their noisy, busy school, full of over excited children, only to return to their home and find an array of flashing lights that hurt their eyes, unfamiliar sounds and jingles from moving festive decorations, and strange smells from Christmas candles and the pine-scented Christmas tree?
2. It’s not their fault
Remember that an autistic child can’t ‘turn off’ their autism to suit your idea of what Christmas should be like.
Of course it can be stressful and disappointing when carefully made Christmas plans don’t go the way you envisaged, but it’s not your child’s fault and they are not deliberately spoiling the fun.
It can be extremely damaging to an autistic child’s mental health to often hear a frustrated family member tell them they ‘always ruin things for everyone else’. This is likely to be at a time when they already feel overwhelmed by the changes that Christmas brings, and perhaps even isolated because they don’t share their friends’ or siblings’ excitement at this time.
3. Try starting small
At Christmas, there can be an overwhelming urge to ‘go big’ and make your home like Santa’s grotto! It’s tempting to want to go all out in one go with decorating your home for Christmas – it’s all part of the traditional Christmas fun.
Our advice is to start small. Begin with a few decorations and perhaps a small artificial tree (real ones often have a strong smell!) and gradually build up with a few more decorations over a period of a few day, as your child’s tolerance grows to the changes around the house.
4. Include your child with the decorating!
Pick a day at the weekend when you have lots of time to decorate the tree. Let your child help as much or as little as they want to. Don’t rush and, tempting as it may be to build excitement, try to keep the atmosphere calm.
Try not to restrict their freedom to express themselves and participate in the decorating in pursuit of the ‘perfect’ Christmas tree! You can always tweak the tinsel when they are in bed or at school!
5. Give it the sniff test!
Christmas comes with many new smells, and this can lead to sensory overload for an autistic child who may be hypersensitive.
Try to avoid any strong smelling Christmas candles, trees and other decorations that may have new or overwhelming smells. You may receive some strange looks sniffing potential purchases in public but it will save you a lot of time and disappointment later at home when your new Christmas items cause sensory overwhelm or a meltdown.
6. No flashers
Christmas lights are often a big part of the Christmas decorations, but remember that many flashing lights can actually cause an autistic person to feel physical pain. We advise you to avoid all types of flashing lights if you can.
Instead, you might choose static (ones that don’t flash) warm white lights, which are the ‘kindest’ for those with sight sensitivities.
7. Avoid surprises
Many people love to be surprised at Christmas, but autistic children may feel safer, more settled and in control with predictability and routine when things aren’t a surprise and they know what will happen next. However well intended, you may find that trying to surprise them will seldom have the effect you were desiring.
Our advice is to involve your child fully in the Christmas planning whenever you can. Use a visual calendar countdown so they know what is coming each day and only plan fully inclusive days which you know they can cope with.
8. Less is sometimes more
Not all autistic children like opening a pile of new gifts, particularly when there is the uncertainty of what’s inside all that wrapping. Some prefer to play with their old familiar toys or even with the boxes or packaging the gifts came in.
Think outside the box! What about little gifts of their favourite things one at a time, throughout the day instead? Or, for some children, it may be better not to wrap up the gifts, so there isn’t that feeling of surprise or unpredictability.
9. Festive foods
Many autistic children do not like change in their diets. The traditional Christmas dinner often has new foods, different sauces and unusual flavours that your child rejects. Often families work hard to prepare a special Christmas dinner, and it can be disappointing to cook a meal that is ‘point blank’ rejected.
Instead of expecting your child to eat an unfamiliar Christmas dinner meal, you could try filling a Christmas food box full of their favourite foods and drinks? That way you all get to enjoy the foods you like.
10. Hugs and kisses
Don’t be surprised if your child refuses to give hugs or kisses to distant relatives they never see!
Many autistic children may want to avoid people they don’t know, and it’s important to remember not to assume they are deliberately doing this to be rude. Autistic children may only communicate or give affection to familiar people. Explaining this discreetly to your visiting guests and rarely seen relatives may help avoid any awkward moments.
11. Be flexible and make your plans fluid
These are skills we try to develop in our autistic children, so we need to lead by example. If plans have to be altered at the last minute to suit your child’s ability to cope on that given day, then
that’s what has to happen. You may feel disappointed, but we cannot stress enough to try to remember that it may not be your child’s intention to deliberately spoil the fun.
Our advice is to have a ‘plan B’ option just in case your child is not feeling their best on the day. If you can involve your child in the planning of ‘Plan A’, they may feel more like they have some control and also know what to expect on a day where you are going out, or having people to visit. Explain to any family or friends any issues that may arise so they too know what to expect, and suggest how they can help.
12. Factor in ‘down time’
With all the changes, excitement and unpredictability that Christmas brings into any schedule, it is really important that you make sure that your child has lots of time
for activities that help them regulate. This might mean having time alone and doing activities they enjoy away from noise and people and so they can self-regulate and cope with the day.
Small adjustments can often make a big difference. Some examples are having a quiet space available in their home if your child needs some ‘down time’, turning down the Christmas music, turning off the flashing light, or preparing some food that your child will find familiar.
By following our top tips, we hope that you can all enjoy the Festive period. Yes, it may look a little different but with some autism friendly planning it can still be enjoyable for all the family; and remember:
“Those that mind, don’t matter: those that matter, don’t mind”