Coping with Christmas when your child has autism spectrum disorder

Mum to a special needs child Nicola Bond has some tips for supporting children with autism spectrum disorder and helping them get through what can be a really stressful time of year.

If you’re the parent of  a special needs child and the thought of Christmas has you reaching for a glass of wine, don’t worry, not you’re alone! This time of year the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) parenting forums are full of questions, advice, and those needing a safe space to share that they’re struggling after yet another Christmas meltdown. It’s a tough time of year for many families and children, thanks to end of school term and end of year fatigue. There’s exams to study and sit, there’s financial stress, and family obligations.

Let’s face it, as awesome as Christmas is, it comes with special stress for those organising it.

It can also be hard on kids with autism. There is familiarity in comfort, routine, and the familiar. Christmas means change in the home, at kindy or at school, in shopping malls, and in supermarkets. Suddenly there are decorations, Christmas music, and images of this guy in a red suit everywhere. There are crowds, noise, and other sensory evils (like balloons). There are also likely to be a slew of invitations to parties, parades, shared meals, and family gatherings.

Find a quiet time before the Christmas season to reflect on what Christmas means to you personally and to your family. You may want to get the family together to talk about this and each choose one thing that you think is really important. Obviously, the bigger your family is, the more negotiation this may involve. As a single parent I unilaterally make the choice to put my child’s needs first and miss out on a lot of the Christmas celebrations that I would otherwise enjoy. It’s not always so easy for those with conflicting demands from a partner or where there are neurotypical (NT) siblings who have events they want to be part of.

Christmas events

If your autistic child is old enough and verbal enough to discuss Christmas events with, involve them in planning which events to be part of and which events to skip. Always have a back up and escape plan that will let you leave early and keep your child’s self-respect intact.

Keep in mind that Christmas parades, parties, and concerts are not only a variation to routine but can involve huge amounts of sensory input. You might want to aim for smaller, local events rather than the biggest one in the city centre. Events where tens of thousands of people attend usually result in roads and bus services being blocked or disrupted making getting home difficult.

Clearly identify the change in routine and pre-warn your child. Show them photos of where you are going and what to expect. Consider creating a social story to help them understand the sequence of events and what will be expected of them.

If they have sensory issues, take along items that will help them feel more settled like a weighted toy, a fidget toy, or noise-cancelling headphones.

Restrict the number of events that you attend. It’s easy for them to accumulate in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Remember to include in your calculations any Christmas celebrations at kindy, school, or church as well.

The Christmas countdown

For young children, you may want to start preparing them for Christmas early (depending on their age). I have introduced Christmas books and CDs early with my daughter to help her get comfortable with the concept before it begins in earnest at kindy. I didn’t want her anxiety to be triggered or for her to feel excluded because the other kids knew who Santa was or recognised popular Christmas tunes and she didn’t.

I would have been quite happy to put up our miniature Christmas tree the week before Christmas, instead, it went up mid-November to ease her anxiety. At her kindergarten, they sang a song about Christmas trees which started an anxiety attack. She thought that all the trees she loves outside of kindy would be stolen and turned into Christmas trees, this transferred to a fear that our Christmas tree would be stolen from storage. Long story short – we drove across town the next day to collect our tree from Nana and Poppa!

Think about a visual method for counting down to Christmas. You might want to do an advent calendar (some families do), or download an app, or simply mark off days on a calendar.

Christmas presents

Most ASD kids do not like surprises so pre-warn! Here are some ideas from different parents:

  • I discuss Christmas presents with my son and give him a budget. He researches what he wants and tells me. He knows exactly what he’s getting for Christmas and is happy that it’s exactly what he wants.
  • I buy my daughter one present for Christmas. I tell her in advance what I’m saving up for and show her pictures. Santa gives her a few small items in her santa sack as unwrapped treats to eat (like chocolate and an orange).
  • I wrap all the presents but for my autistic child, I attach photos of what’s inside. They still enjoy unwrapping them but they’re more comfortable knowing what’s in them. Their siblings have the choice of photos too.
  • I take photos of everything before I wrap them and then let my daughter choose if she wants to open them as a surprise or point to items on my phone and then be handed the presents in that order.
  • I’m getting my child a bunch of small practical gifts (like sensory items, or craft activities, or a sea shell to represent a beach visit) and I am going to let them open one thing each day from when kindy ends. This will help to give us something to do each morning to cope with the change of routine and it will make Christmas Day less overwhelming.

Remember to warn relatives if certain items are likely to cause sensory issues. You may want to ask them to pre-wash clothes and remove tags.

Christmas Day

As wonderful and as exciting as Christmas Day is, it can also be overwhelming and carry with it a range of expectations for ASD children.

Discuss in advance what the schedule will be for Christmas Day. Consider creating a social story  so that they know what the order of events will be. For instance, when will they open presents? When will meals be? What food will be served? Are family coming to visit? Are you driving to visit family?

Identify correct etiquette for receiving a gift. Teach them to say “thank you”. Explain rules and expectations, like: “Sometimes we receive presents we like. Sometimes we receive presents we don’t like. We should say thank you for each present we receive.”

Give them a list of everyone they will see Christmas Day. Help them think about how they will greet each person. Do they want to give Grandma a hug? Do they want to just wave at that funny smelling Great Aunt they only see once a year? Make sure that extended family understand how important consent is (at any age) and that it is entirely up to your child if they want physical contact. Help your child to understand it is important to greet each person (with a wave, or eye contact and saying hello) but that it is up to them whether they want a hug or a cuddle.

Use a portable timer or clock or watch for visiting other people’s houses and make sure you leave at the time you have pre-agreed with your child to avoid a meltdown. If necessary, have the family take two cars so that you can leave early if your ASD child isn’t coping.

Make sure there is food they will enjoy eating on Christmas Day. It’s all very well wanting a traditional roast with all the trimmings, but if this is something your child won’t eat then don’t force the issue on a day that is already stressful for them.

If they want to eat a plain cheese pizza, or seaweed and crackers, or a Marmite sandwich and apple – then let them. Make sure they are included and have the option of trying other foods but have food they are comfortable with as well.

Nicola Bond is a freelance writer with a background in writing website content, training material for print and e-learning mediums, and allergy-free recipes. Her project  and change management experience have helped transition her to a new adventure proudly parenting a special needs child.  You can find a range of parenting posts, recipes, and activities on her website.

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