As you know, my eldest son is autistic and over the years we’ve adapted how we celebrate Christmas so it’s something he can enjoy and participate in too. For all those parents out there like me, you’ll understand that it’s a constant trial and error experience!
But here are my 6 top tips for making Christmas as stress-free as possible for your autistic child.
🎄 Limit the number of presents
One thing which really overwhelms my son is when lots of people are giving him gifts and waiting expectantly for his reaction – be it gratitude in the form of hugs or words of appreciation. All of this creates sensory overload for him and you can visibly see him check out or head towards Meltdown Central. So to mitigate this, I limit gifts to one in the morning and one in the afternoon. That way he can open, appreciate and enjoy his gift with the remaining gifts being slowly distributed over the days and weeks that follow.
🎄 Keep your noise levels in check and have an exit strategy
When we’ve had Christmases with a few families over (granted not this year!), I create a safe retreat in an area of the house which is exclusively for my son. Sometimes I’ll set up Lego in there or another calming activity for him. But this is his space for when the noise might build up and he just needs to have some alone time. He knows about it in advance and on the day, I might suggest he goes there if he’s getting anxious or he might do so himself. Knowing he has this brings him a sense of comfort because it’s an escape route available exclusively to him – no questions asked.
🎄 Don’t expect Christmas food to be welcomed because it’s often different
I prepare my sons favourite meal the day before to minimise stress on Christmas Day and it’s often some type of pasta dish. For me, it’s not about the meal but about the shared eating experience and creating positive food relationships. Given my son’s difficulties with social interaction, if he’s able to sit at the dining table and interact over a family meal, then I consider that to be a huge success.
🎄 Remember your routines
It’s easy for timings to slip over the Christmas period; I like to have a later breakfast, maybe watch a Christmas cartoon with the kids before breakfast (they’re up from 5:30am!). But I make a point of explaining what the routine for that day looks like including what’s planned, who might pop over (even if it’s a doorstep present drop) and what time. That way, my son’s not caught off guard by what’s happening and any anxiety around this is managed.
🎄Don’t force them to dress up
No Christmas outfits, elf ears or Santa hats in sight on Christmas Day. My son is most comfortable when he knows what’s happening and everyday is more or less similar. Therefore if wearing a tracksuit and jersey top on Christmas Day makes him comfortable, that’s what he’ll be in. It doesn’t mean he’s any less excited or engaged about Christmas, just that there is some sameness about the day which means he can cope better with some of the other distractions the day will inevitably bring.
🎄 Start the return to your usual routine in advance
Over Christmas, we let our son stay up a bit later and let him mooch about in his pyjamas in the mornings too. But around five days before he is due to return to school, we slowly wean him back onto the usual school routine such as being in bed by 8pm and getting ready in the morning before he comes down for breakfast. That way, when he returns to school, the transition is managed much more easily.
I hope these tips are helpful. It’s been a challenging year for everybody and no less for those parents of children who have additional needs. Hats off to you parents out there for everything you’ve coped with.
May the year ahead bring our community closer together so we can continue to help our special children realise their incredible and innate potential.
Merry Christmas to you all ❤️
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Aaron Amat