Christmas can be a stressful time for all of us. Lots of changes in routine, many social interactions between family and friends and lots of unexpected events. That is why it is important to try and have things in place to keep everyone calm and happy over the Festive Season. Some people with autism do find the season challenging and overwhelming. I have experience of teaching and parenting children with autism and so I have prepared a list of some helpful hints to support families with autistic children over the holidays. These tips will not be suitable for everyone but over the years they have proved invaluable to me.
Plan everything in advance and ensure that your child is fully informed of what is happening everyday from what they will eat, to who they will meet and where they will go. It’s important to speak to your child well in advance. I also write on a whiteboard in the kitchen what we are planning to eat and do each day during that week.
Try to keep to a routine as much as is possible throughout the holiday period. Autistic people feel safer when each day is the same.
Inform your child what presents they will receive. I have always found Christmas less stressful when my child knows what they are getting in terms of gifts. We have drawn up a Christmas list for many years and we also give lists to various family members so that there are as few surprises as possible. Of course, there will always be at least one surprise, but I usually find that this is easier to navigate if the majority of gifts are not a surprise.
Be cautious of family members visiting with pets unknown to the autistic child. It may be advisable to ask family members to leave animals with a neighbour or at home, as it can cause even more stress.
Allow time out at the dinner table or in social events. Sitting around the Christmas dinner table with family members for three courses and having to talk, can prove to be immensely stressful. I have always allowed my child to excuse themselves after each course and return to the table for the next course. Avoid games at the table. We tried this one year and it caused a great deal of stress because my child was at the table to eat not play games. Ensure that they have their own quiet space or bedroom to go to if they need to.
Try to keep all noise to a minimum and if the noise level is going to rise then ensure that your child has noise cancellation headphones.
Be aware that, decorations can be challenging. Autistic children have different sensory needs. Try to avoid anything that is loud or very bright and flashing. Some autistic children can be very sensitive to some sensory sensations.
To sum up this advice – plan, plan and plan. Of course, there will always be times when the unexpected occurs. It is therefore a good idea to use social stories to talk through the things that might happen.
Finally, if I had to give just one piece of advice it would be this; do whatever works for your child, your family and you.