Christmas is stressful for everyone, but for autistic children the anxieties can be profound. Many will find Christmas difficult, even if they are excited about the event itself. Changes in routine, sensory overload, new places and faces – these are all things that they will find difficult – and they all happen at Christmas. When the big day arrives, many families will be faced with a child who is close to breaking point. Supporting autistic children at Christmas.
Supporting autistic children at Christmas
Although this guide will be helpful for parents, it is most useful for those who do not live with the child or who are not their main caregivers. If you have a grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin on the autism spectrum and you are to meet them over the festive season, this guide should help you to help them, and their parents, cope with the upheaval that Christmas brings.
At this time of year, routines are disrupted. If the child is at school or nursery they may not have been in their usual lessons. They may be expected to stay up later, eat at different times, travel to places they usually do not. You can help by ensuring there are anchors of routine and planning that enable them to move from one part of the day to the next. Ask their parent or carer how you can help integrate some of their routines into your plans. Keeping meal times and clear signals like bedtime close to what they are used to will help them feel safe.
If you have relatives visiting who are not very well known to the child, putting up photographs of them and looking at them each day with your child can help them accept them more easily. Indeed, visual timetables and frequent verbal reminders may be needed several days or weeks before the celebrating begins.
If there are songs, television programs, books or apps that the child loves, create a memory stick with them all on. In emergencies, they can then access their passions and hobbies in strange places or while the main spaces of the house are being used by other adults.
A quiet and safe personal space
If you have a big enough house, set aside a room with all their favourite things and home comforts. If that isn’t possible, a shielded nook with a screen or, for a smaller child, a pop-up tent where they can go to be calm is the next best thing. Be understanding when the child needs to use this space.
Gifts can be a minefield. The element of surprise, appealing to many when opening presents, can be almost painful for a child on the spectrum. In our house, we open all presents beforehand. We remove all packaging, insert batteries and assemble anything that requires it, and then re-wrap. Some children may well need to know exactly what they are opening before they see it. Taking pictures of the gifts before you wrap can be a helpful trick. It may seem like it spoils the magic to show the child before opening, but a calm and happy child makes Christmas more enjoyable for all.
If you are a relative who can’t wait to see the joy when the child opens your gift, remember – any deviation from expectations can be devastating and an autistic child may not know how to contain their extreme discomfort if anything about the gift is unanticipated.
Dealing with meltdowns
If the near inevitable happens and the child becomes distressed, a single calm presence and a quiet place to retreat to are essential. In a house full of extended family, there is the danger that many people will to try to help at once. Grandparents and other relatives’ instincts are to try the tactics they deploy with other children – bringing in other objects, activities or people to attempt distraction. This can make things worse for an autistic child. Many will have language processing difficulties and lots of people talking at once can be confusing and painful. Make it easy for a parent or carer to retreat to a safe place, or leave.
Above all, do not judge the stress and discomfort of the child as naughtiness or a lack of gratitude. Be understanding about their reactions to the unexpected. Parents will thank you for it and everyone will have a merrier Christmas as a result.