Is your home festooned with shiny tinsel and dripping with flashing fairy lights? If you have an autistic child in the house, the unusual sights, sounds and smells of Christmas can be an intense and unsettling affair. While most neurotypical children revel in the sense of the unexpected each December 25, for autistic kids it can be one of the most anxious times of the year. But there are ways to make the holiday feel special for every member of your family.
Festive decorations are intended to be a sensory overload; as parents of an autistic child you will already understand that this might be too much. Adapting these traditions to make things easier for them is the obvious step. You could strip back decorations to a minimum and retain a sense of continuity with the rest of the year. Or, if you have other children who don't want to miss out, you could compromise and agree to a single room being decorated. Whatever you decide, it's a good idea to allow your child to be involved. They might want to help choose decorations, or help organise their display; feeling ownership of the process will help to make Christmas feel less threatening.
Christmas dinner is possibly the most stressful meal of the year, adding the needs of an autistic child into the mix could turn even the best prepared turkey dinner into a pile of steaming giblets. Accept that it's OK for their dinner to look different. If your child wants chicken nuggets instead of roast potatoes, let them. You could let them eat at a different time, in a separate room, even take them to McDonald's; do whatever they need to make it a successful meal. There are so many other things for them to enjoy that day, why ruin it all by forcing them to endure brussels sprouts and a party hat?
The holiday season effectively begins at the beginning of October in the UK, as shops set out their wares, and lasts until the final pine needle falls from the tree on twelfth night. With that much time available, perhaps you could spread your celebrations out, or move them altogether to another day that better suits your child? You could even leave it until the holidays are over and your child is back in their routine, and so better able to cope with whatever you have planned. Whatever you decide, it's vital to leave large amounts of space for simply unwinding and relaxing in whatever way suits them. This way they will better resourced to participate in the activities that they find more taxing.
On Christmas day, more than any other, it pays to be prepared when taking your autistic child to visit family and friends. Be open with whoever has invited you and explain what works for your child. Obviously don't overwhelm your kind hosts with every tiny detail, just stick to the three most important areas that might be a problem. Maybe your child could prepare for the visit by seeing a photo showing how they have decorated their lounge? You could politely remind your extended family that your child might not want a cuddle as they walk through the door, or maybe at all. It can be an overwhelming and challenging experience going out over Christmas, but some clear guidance can help to make sure it's a positive experience for all.
Rather than wrapping up dozens of mystery packages you might want to tell your autistic child what they're getting for Christmas. If they are anxious about presents, involve them in choosing and buying them. This can be far more satisfying and less anxiety inducing than being confronted by the surprise appearance of a Christmas stocking stuffed full of unknown terrors. You can still have fun putting a Christmas list together and then distribute it among friends and family. Hopefully your child will then be excited to receive presents rather than worrying about them.
If there are particular Christmas traditions that you cherish but your child is not able to take part in, don't forget them altogether. You might be able to find time to do them with someone else you love. At this time of year, take the chance to indulge yourself; spend a little longer in the bath, do a wreath making course, have a drink with friends. The more you can relax, the better equipped you'll be to help your child navigate the challenges they'll face over the festive period.
At Clinical Partners, our specialist clinicians have years of experience working with autistic children and their parents to find practical ways to understand and manage their needs. To speak to our knowledgeable triage staff about the range of treatment options and support available call 0203 326 9160 or explore our Autism hub.