For many, Christmas would not be Christmas without the magic of Father Christmas.
Iconically larger than life, burly, bulky and dressed from head to toe in red, with a flowing white beard and hat hiding his face, and possessed of unrivalled mystical powers to bring gifts to those who have been ‘good’ throughout the year, Father Christmas is loved by children all across the world, right…?
Father Christmas – friend or foe?
For many autistic children, Father Christmas can trigger emotional and behavioural responses which can range from anxiety to terror to meltdown, and everything in between. But why?
Loveable as many people perceive him to be, he could be considered as:
- A stranger
- Unpredictable – his arrival is unannounced, which can be very confusing for an autistic child. Most autistic children function best with predictability. For some it is a necessity. They feel more settled in day to day life with structure, when they know what is going to happen next, when, where and how. They like a plan, a routine, familiarity and knowing when something is going to happen
- Coming into your bedroom/home without your permission which is an invasion of your safe place/haven
- Entering into your home at night time after you are asleep and mummy and daddy are asleep – the popular song lyric heard all over Christmas, ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping,’ anxiety about going to sleep because of worrying about this and when this might be
- Can defy logic and get through walls/chimneys/windows – isn’t this a bit like a burglar?!
- Leave things behind that may be un-welcomed: dirty footprints, half eaten food, unpredictable gifts
- Brings animals with him who may also come into the house!
- Being told you have to ‘be good’ and that if you are bad you will not get rewards – what does ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean?
Fact or fiction?
Many autistic people can find it confusing to understand the difference between real life and fiction. Magic cannot be seen and touched. It is not visible, concrete and factual; it requires imagination and a belief in the unseen that must override logic and rational thinking.
So when it comes to Father Christmas, what is real and what is “made up”?
You lied to me!
An autistic brain often likes truth, honesty and logic.
We may be well intentioned and preserving the magic of Christmas by encouraging our children to believe in Father Christmas, but, on reflection, the bottom line is that we are telling a lie to our child. An autistic brain may not be able to resolve this later when the truth ‘comes out’ in terms of trusting that their closest and most trusted adults are telling the truth.
Oh no! The Grotto!
Is it any wonder when we take our autistic children to see Father Christmas that they react with such horror and anxiety?
It goes against all the learning we teach our children, yet at Christmas time, we tell them to go to a stranger, to sit on his lap, have your photo taken, and be given something that is an unknown quantity in a noisy, unfamiliar, highly stimulating environment.
Preserving the magic
When you put this all together, it’s easy to see why Christmas is so often a confusing and anxious time; and Father Christmas can be such a scary character.
So what’s the answer?
As with everything, you know your child best and will decide what is right for them. From experience, here are some tips that can help to preserve the Christmas magic in a way that can make your child more comfortable about what is going on and what to expect:
OUR TOP TIPS:
- Tell your child that Father Christmas is leaving their presents in the garage and you will collect them in the morning.
- Confirm that he will NOT be coming into the house when they are asleep.
- Maybe consider telling them the truth about Father Christmas if you think this will ease anxiety; but remembering they mustn’t spoil the magic for younger siblings or school friends.
- An alternative to the trip to Santa’s grotto would be to have a personalised message sent to your child. There are many services online that offer this.
- Source an autism friendly Santa’s grotto; or, if it’s too much for your child – just don’t go!
- Use social stories to make your Christmas experience more predictable.