Outside: crowded streets, noisy shops, flashing lights. At home: random visitors, no routine, more noise, more flashing lights, long journeys, funny food, non-stop kisses and cuddles, exhausted, ratty adults. Not easy for the child, and even harder if you’re his or her parent.
My son was diagnosed with autism when he was three, in 2017. At first, I struggled to let go of my vision of a ‘normal’ childhood Christmas and kept trying to create that for my children, even though it didn’t work for my son. But this year I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t. At its core, after all, Christmas is about family. And that means embracing the family I have – not the John Lewis ad version I used to carry in my head. These are the practical things that have made a difference for me, my son and all of us.
9 tips for managing Christmas when your child has autism:
1) Create a hiding place for your child
Many autistic children feel overwhelmed and anxious by lots of guests, so make them a little den and explain that any time they need a break they can go in here.
Behind the sofa or under the stairs works well, or you could try a pop up play tent (Ikea does a good one for £20). If you’re staying with grandparents it’s worth packing the tent too, to recreate exactly the same ‘safe zone’ at their house. A battery powered nightlight, a favourite book and blankets will make it cosy.
2) Take advantage of perks
With nursery or school closed the Christmas holidays can be tough – since few autistic kids can cope with ‘normal’ holiday camps or family days out. But there’s actually a lot out there, from free theatre performances for children with additional needs, to discounts and fast tracking at museums and theme parks.
Take advantage - it really helps if you’re feeling sad about your family missing out, or if your days are blurring into one long episode of Paw Patrol. And if you’re travelling, do email the airport ahead as they can offer you special assistance and skip queues.
3) Educate the grandparents
Imagine if you were taking a child with nut allergy to stay with your in-laws. You’d be explicit about their diet, wouldn’t you? You might even insist on a nut free house. You wouldn’t just muddle along, embarrassed to make a fuss, assuming that the older generation won’t ‘get it’.
I don’t see the difference with autism. It’s better that you explain what your child needs, and what they can’t stand, than Christmas lunch ends in a meltdown. With luck, you’ll find that everyone is keen to be accommodating. But if your relations don’t see your child daily, and there are certain allowances you want them to make, you’ll probably need to spell those out.
4) Establish rituals
Autistic children may not ‘get’ Christmas the way neurotypical kids do, but they do latch on to rituals. They will probably have a very rigid idea, for example, of ‘what we eat at Auntie’s house’ or ‘which decoration goes on top of our tree.’ Use this rigidity to give them - and you - a sense of private, festive traditions.
My son’s favourite food is crumpets, so on Christmas day we use a Christmas tree shaped cookie cutter to make Christmas Crumpets. We also watch The Snowman every evening, and he always gets the same chocolate owl in his stocking. Small things like this appeal to the systematic, autistic mind, and if you repeat them year on year they’ll make you feel Christmassy too.
5) Find silver linings
Last year, I remember asking my son what he wanted for Christmas. He responded by asking me whether the gate we were approaching was open or closed. For a moment I felt sad and frustrated - why couldn’t my child share in the excitement, like other children?
But this year, I’ve decided to embrace his attitude. I’m spared that disconcerting materialism that so many neurotypical children (including my other son) display, and the pressure that puts on parents. There will be no tears over the wrong present, no expectations to meet. Last year his favourite ‘new toy’ was a small spade decoration he took off the Christmas tree. I’m ok with that.
6) Know your child’s triggers
If your child falls apart popping out for milk on a Tuesday afternoon, they probably won’t cope well with Christmas shopping. This means you might have to let go of your vision of Christmas ‘essentials’.
All that’s really essential is that you’re relaxed, and you aren’t peeling a screaming child off a shop floor, all because you jumped in the car on Christmas Eve to get some extra Cranberry sauce. Sod the cranberry sauce. Also, avoid shops by ordering as much online as you can.
7) Keep the routines you can
I’m not naturally punctual or routine orientated, but I’ve had to become more regimented because when our family sticks to a schedule everything is just easier.
Christmas strips away a lot of routine, so cling to any cornerstones of the day that you can without impinging on your hosts or guests – bathtime, storytime, a particular iPad game while you’re having a ‘lie in’ at 6.45am etc. Basically the less novelty, the better. If your extended family is particularly spontaneous or chaotic keep visits short.
8) The square babysitter is your friend
Christmas is full of long windows when adults are sitting around chatting. And where neurotypical children can usually be involved or persuaded/bribed to wait, a screen may be the only thing that can keep an autistic four year old calm.
The good thing about Christmas is that there are loads of lovely festive cartoons (children on the spectrum generally prefer animation to actors). The Snowman and The Snowdog, We’re Going On A Bear Hunt or Raymond Briggs Father Christmas all feel so wholesome you might be tempted to join them on the sofa.
9) Give yourself a present
Either a real one, or the metaphorical present of a bath, a YouTube yoga video or an afternoon to just read or walk.
All parents need a break, but none more so than the parent of a child with a disability or additional needs. Don’t feel guilty about asking for this. You still deserve to enjoy Christmas.
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