Image: Getty
Image: Getty

SocietyDecember 23, 2022

How to support neurodivergent children – and their parents – this Christmas

Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Between the flashing lights, unfamiliar foods and smooches on the cheek from well-meaning relatives, Christmas can be stressful for neurodivergent children and their families. But if you plan in advance, the Big Day can be all the fun it’s supposed to be. 

Most people with neurodivergent children will know Christmas can be difficult because it is a major change to routine and there are enormous expectations.

There are many aunties and uncles, siblings, grandparents, and family friends who want to support the kids they love who have autism, ADHD, or any other neurotypes. They want to make their homes more welcoming and their holidays more accessible. I love this, and as the neurodivergent parent to a neurodivergent child I’m always grateful for it.

The best thing to do if you have a loved one who is neurodivergent is to ask them or their parents what works best for them.

Here are some ideas that might also help: First, it’s good to just acknowledge that things might not go well right from the get-go. December is a hard time for everyone – not just neurodivergent kids. School is ending, routines are out the window, everyone is tired and there’s enormous expectation on people to perform Christmas correctly. There’s a lot of (maybe too much) socialising and a lot of “shoulds” and “don’ts” and confusing traditions.

Last year, I commissioned my friend and researcher Tam Clemerson to create a Christmas survival guide for the Awhi Ngā Mātua community. Tam is neurodivergent too and they have a neurodivergent child.

Here are their tips and mine, combined into one handy guide.

Manage your time

Routine is useful for everyone’s peace of mind, but it can be a vital tool in managing neurodivergence. On Big Days like Christmas Day, routine often just isn’t an option. If that’s the case, the next best thing is ensuring, as much as possible, that nothing is unexpected. In the absence of routine, create certainty.

Tip: Consider putting a big timetable poster on the wall as a visual aid. Tick off things as you go through them to create “an anchor in time”.

Pick and choose

If you receive heaps of invitations to visit family and friends, it can be overwhelming. Give yourself permission to pick just one or two events. Events are often prioritised based on the relationship with the host but it’s also important to consider how happy your whānau will be at each event.

Tip: If you’re hosting a family with a neorodivergent child, don’t take it personally if there’s a cancellation on the big day or if they can only visit for a short time. They’re trying to manage their capacity and it’s not a sign of how much they want to spend this time with you. It’s about what they or their loved one can cope with.

Suggest alternatives

Every tradition started at some point and no tradition has stayed the same since its genesis. Keep the traditions that work for you and avoid the others.

Tip: Why not schedule a quiet visit? Or you could have presents and pastries in the morning instead of a whole day of Christmas festivities?

Establish time limits

Certainty – knowing exactly when something will start and finish – is key, for happy kids and happy adults.

Tip: Remember how in Cinderella, the carriage turns back into a pumpkin at midnight? Set a Pumpkin Time and let the hosts know ahead of time when you’ll be leaving.

Learn to leave before the good times have stopped rolling. (Photo: Getty)

Set expectations around physical contact

Let other adults know what’s acceptable and unacceptable touching for your child. You may need to be quite strict with other adults about this one, and it can be useful to figure out bearable alternatives to the customary squeezy cuddle and wet kiss. You’re looking for ways to ensure your kid is comfortable and supported, and Granny is still able to express her love.

Tip: Cheek Kisses (lightly pressing our cheeks together) and Hair Kisses (kisses to the top of the head) involve loving intimacy but minimal mouth contact. Sometimes hugs aren’t wanted but sitting next to each other holding hands is acceptable.

Eating and Christmas

Many ND kids and adults have “safe foods”. It can be distressing to not have food that is familiar, or even to be confronted by the wrong brand of custard or roasted potatoes instead of boiled.

Tip: Pack a lunchbox for each child. The food will be familiar and ready for your kid when they need it, regardless of what the rest of the family is doing.

Plan for quiet

Christmas is busy and, to be frank, it’s a sensory nightmare. Flashing lights and repetitive songs are everywhere. Everyone needs time to rest and recharge, so put it into your timetable.

Tip: Block out alone time after lunch or even entire days with no plans. Put the tree lights onto slow fade instead of a fast blink and keep any background music down low. If you have the room, create a Quiet Space for reading books and quiet conversation and a Loud Space for playing with new toys and listening to music.

In my family we no longer travel for Christmas as it’s too stressful for our child. But we welcome family and friends to visit. We do presents in the morning and have Same Foods and keep our normal routine for our child. We have quiet time until the afternoon and we come back together to have afternoon tea.

When we visit a family we haven’t seen before, we do it on a day that’s less busy. And we ask for photos or video ahead of time so our child can see ahead of time what the environment they’re going into is like.

We tell friends and family what our son’s Special Interests are – and then they can ask him about them. He loves to talk about his Special Interests, so it helps him to get comfortable.

We bring our own food, a comfort blanket, and books for quiet time. We check in with each other often – how is everyone feeling? Is anyone starting to feel tired? Do we need some quiet?

Allow time for resting and recharging. (Photo: Getty Images)

Practise patience and empathy

I often think of the wisdom of my friend Kahukura (Ngāi Tahu and Te Ātiawa), a mum of two who is autistic and has ADHD. She runs the Facebook account More Than One Neurotype to help educate the public.

A while back I talked to her about how hard the pandemic is on austistic kids. And she said something that’s stuck with me ever since:

“If we say everyone is different and that’s OK that doesn’t just help autistics, it helps everyone.”

Any changes you make this holiday period to include neurodivergent children will make the holiday more enjoyable for all children.

It’s been a long and exhausting year – patience and empathy for everyone goes a long way.

This piece first appeared in Awhi Ngā Mātua, a Substack newsletter on parenting disabled children in Aotearoa.

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