Here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun…..aren’t they?
Whilst families all over the world are excitedly looking forward to Christmas, that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. Christmas can be a very difficult time for autistic kids (and adults) and in turn for their families too.
There’s the complete change in routine, the massive increase in social occasions, the peaceful house now full of lights and sounds.
There’s the social pressures, the presents, the different foods. All the traditional things that many of us love about Christmas, can be completely overwhelming too.
So what do we do about it? How do we try to have a Christmas that the whole family can enjoy? Going into my 12th Christmas as a dad, here’s some lessons I’ve learned along the way, and tips from other families, of how to make this year’s Christmas more autism friendly.
1. Stick to regular routines whenever you can
We all know routine goes out of the window at this time of year, but it’s something that our kids crave. They rely on them, it brings structure and certainty to their lives. Christmas can be completely unpredictable, and we often just expect our kids will adapt to that. Try to keep as many of them in place as possible. Maybe that’s keeping up certain routines they follow during each day. Or maybe that’s having gaps in between social occasions, so that they can get a day or two of regularity in between. The closer you can stick to your routines, the easier this time of year will be for everyone.
2. Use a visual schedule
To make the inevitable changes in routine easier to process, try having a visual daily or weekly schedule, with pictures showing what it is you’re going to be doing. Help your child understand the different places you’re going to be visiting, and have photos of who will be there. Use social stories to help explain where you’re going, what you’ll be eating, how to open a present. Helping them prepare for the days ahead can make such a difference
3. Speak to family and friends about autism in advance
We’ve all been to that social occasion where a family member’s made a judgmental comment about your child’s behaviour. Or they’ve made things more difficult for your by trying to get them to join in and be like everyone else. And if your child is having a meltdown, the last thing you want to worry about is what they might be thinking. Sometimes that’s through ignorance, but often it’s because they simply know no better.
So this year, be pro-active. If you’re spending Christmas with a lot of family, speak to them beforehand. Explain what your kid likes and dislikes. Tell them that they might not get a ‘thank you’ for the present they gave, or a kiss or a hug. Tell them how social cues make your child uncomfortable and not to take it personally. Assure them that being on the iPad, not eating dinner at the table, isn’t rude, it’s helping them to cope with the social situation. If there’s other children there who you don’t regularly spend much time with, maybe it’s a good idea to talk to them a little bit about autism too.
Being open about these things in advance, educating them a little more on autism, will not only make your child’s day easier, but also make yours a lot less stressful too.
4. Make sure there’s a quiet area
Whether you’re visiting family or having people over to you, try to make sure there’s a space or a room, where your child can get away from it all. If there’s no space, maybe try and take a break, go out for a walk or a drive, a chance to have some quiet time. When the socialising starts to become overwhelming, having an area where they can be alone, quiet, and start to self-regulate, away from everyone else will make the days go much smoother.
5. Do presents your way
Rushing down to the Christmas tree first thing in the morning and ripping open all of your presents might not be the best way to go! For my boys they both do things differently. For Tommy I spread his presents out over 5-6 days. Opening them all at once is overwhelming for him and becomes obsessive. This way he can cope with opening them, and actually keep his focus on the gift and enjoying it. Plus it keeps him entertained for longer during the school holidays as he has another gift or two each day.
For Jude he has very little interest in presents. Opening them is too much for him, so each year I leave his presents unwrapped in a basket, and allow him to explore them throughout the day. In his own time he’ll go through them and experiment with them. Any batteries are already put in, toys assembled and packaging got rid of.
Other ideas include having photos of the present stuck onto the wrapping paper to encourage them to open it. This can also help if your child doesn’t like surprises too. Some of our kids may still get overwhelmed by the experience, and opening them in private might be the best option. The point is, do what presents your way.
6. Make a Christmas dinner that everyone wants to eat
We all have an idea of what a traditional Christmas dinner involves. For me it’s turkey, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets, and all the trimmings. But often our autistic kids have a limited diet, or aversions to certain foods. So if Christmas Day means they’ll only eat pizza or chicken nuggets, just like every other day of the year, then make pizza or chicken nuggets.
If you’re visiting family, explain, take your own food with you if you have to. Make sure you have plenty of the foods that your child will eat. If that includes eating Christmas dinner in front of the tv, wandering around whilst eating, then that’s ok too. If you allow it every other day of the year don’t try and change it just for Christmas.
7. Put your child’s needs first
This is central to every point that’s already been made, but put your child’s needs first. Let them be your lead. If you know social occasions can be too much, make sure you take breaks, take advantage of the quiet streets and go out for a walk. Let them know you can leave when they have to, or make that decision for them if they can’t communicate it to you.
Think about adapting Christmas to their needs rather than forcing them to adapt to massive changes every year for a week or two.
8. Find your own version of what makes a ‘merry Christmas’
When there’s meltdowns and days where it all goes wrong, Christmas can be an incredibly emotional time for kids and parents alike. This is my 12th Christmas as a dad, and it’s pretty different to what I imagined. And whilst I found that hard in the early years, it’s become easier, the more I’ve accepted it. The more I tried to have a Christmas where both my boys are smiling, rather than recreating my own childhood, or what movies portray as a perfect Christmas.
For us that means keeping Christmas very low key, lowering demands, being flexible with my own expectations. Being prepared to leave family gatherings if things aren’t working, and being ok about it. Not worrying about Christmas movies, or music, or being able to go to parties, or telling stories about Santa. Instead I focus on their happiness, which is really all that matters in making Christmas a merry one.
Everyone on the autism spectrum is unique, so this isn’t a one size fits all guide. More some ideas to help get you thinking about what might make a difference for you and your family, to make it an autism friendly Christmas. I hope some of them help, and would love to hear of any more you have in the comments. Wishing you and your families a very Merry Christmas.