“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – but not for everyone.
Christmas can be a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism the festive period is anything but wonderful. Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.
Making adjustments to help your child cope better with this time of the year will hopefully allow all the family to have a more enjoyable experience. It can also provide some valuable learning experiences that help to build those all-important social skills.
We’ve introduced a Christmas and Birthdays sticker pack that contains useful symbols to help you prepare for the festive season and other celebrations. Here are our tips for using these visual supports along with some simple strategies.
Keep to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day. There’s no rules to say things have to be done a certain way – do it the way that suits your family best. If different or unusual foods might be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of time so it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner.
It won’t be possible (or necessarily desirable) to avoid disturbances to routine at home or school altogether. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling but you can use a visual timeline like the example here to prepare them for when something unexpected will be happening.
Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells can all spark sensory overload. Let your child help to choose the decorations you buy and put up and consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. Make sure to leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always somewhere for the child to retreat to if necessary.
Use symbols showing items traditionally associated with the event to make an “All about Christmas” list that can help familiarise your child with what to expect.
Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and events with family and friends. Use TomTag as a scheduler to help your child prepare for visitors to the house or for visits to family and perhaps keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting.
We’ve also included symbols that can be used to reinforce positive social behaviour. Build a tag to use as a reminder for how to greet visitors to the house or to remind them when to say please and thank you.
Many children with autism struggle with surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. You could leave their presents unwrapped or if they like unwrapping gifts tell them what’s inside first.
They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents – try introducing them one at a time or even adopting an advent calendar-style approach, letting them open a small gift each day in the run up to Christmas.
Don’t forget to put batteries in toys in advance so that they can be played with straight away!
Above all, try to remember that this is your Christmas as well. If you’re in a good mood and happy, those around you are more likely to be too. Try to share out the workload – try out our Food & Drink stickers and enlist some help with peeling and chopping all that veg!
The NAS has compiled a list of tips to help you through the festive period.
Do you have any great tips you can share?