For most children, the thrill of Christmas is all about enjoying the lights, meeting Santa, singing songs and going to parties. But for people with autism, Christmas can be a very different experience.
Although Christmas can be fun, it can also be a time of sensory overload; you have family and friends visiting, it’s noisy, the music is louder in every shop, there’s more food than usual causing their sense of smell and taste to heighten, and it can seem inescapable.
There are bright decorations and crowded rooms, people often look quite different to how they should look, in their hats and Christmas costumes, and frequently a change in the normal routine.
All this adds up to a potentially difficult time for a child with autism, so how can we help?
Although it’s very tempting to focus solely on what’s going to be different at Christmas – and preparing your child for the things that are going to change is hugely important – always remember to focus on everything that’s staying the same.
If your child struggles to stay calm in situations involving lots of people, especially as it’s likely to be all day or even days of people being in their space, make sure they know that you can talk to them and be there for them. Tell them it’s okay if they need to get away from all the stimuli and go to their room for some downtime to recharge, regulate and have a breather.
Remind them that even though their family members might be wearing unusual or brightly coloured clothes, they’re still the same people on the inside, and still love them just as much. Explaining why people dress up in sparkly dresses and silly clothes at Christmas will help a lot.
Visual aids like calendars, lists, schedules and social stories can help prevent your child from feeling overwhelmed and get them ready for everything that Christmas has to offer.
If you are making changes to your family member’s routine and meals, take their opinions and concerns into account and see if you can adapt your plans. Changes to meals, cutlery and table set ups can all cause stress which is easily avoided or eased.
Decorating is one of the most exciting parts of the festive season, but while decorations can be great for some, they can be stressful for others. Gradually introducing Christmas activities and decorations will help to ease their stress. Try putting up your tree one day and then adding decorations a little at a time.
Recognise that the way you celebrate will be as unique as everything else you do, so not everyone will understand it, but that doesn’t make your experiences any less valuable.
Whatever happens, always remember that a life with autism, however extraordinary and unique, is very much a life worth celebrating, and that applies not just at Christmas, but all year round.
What special things does your family do at Christmas?