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Coping with a family Christmas for an anxious teen with autism


For my son, Tom, thinking about our family Christmas meal is causing him anxiety. Spending time together and creating memories over a shared meal – it’s what many people love about Christmas – but it’s not so easy for an anxious teen with autism.

Visibly on edge, Tom seeks constant reassurance about what will happen. He worries about not being able to understand or contribute to conversations. He fears that he will be negatively judged for talking about his special interest, Swiss trains.

These are some of the strategies we’ve developed to help him cope with and enjoy the day.

Use a visual schedule and plan, plan, plan

Tom uses a note-making app on his ‘phone as a visual schedule tool. This reminds him what time our guests are expected to arrive, when we anticipate eating and what family games and entertainment there is likely to be after the meal has finished.  We used a more traditional, physical visual schedule when he was younger to explain about what was going to happen.

christmas tree background with tomtag overlay
Choose an age-appropriate visual schedule tool

This pre-planning has been a good opportunity to work on Tom’s flexible thinking. We’ve brain stormed possible reasons why, on the day, there may be a slight change to the schedule; our guests may be late due to traffic delays, the dinner might not be ready at the exact time, not all our guests may want to engage in party games!

Have an important role to play

Giving Tom a role helps him feel involved but without the pressure to join in. It’s important to strike the right balance so that I don’t make him feel doubly anxious by putting demands on him. Tom is looking forward to greeting the guests on arrival, passing round the drinks and helping to carve the turkey. 

tomas with chef's hat on carving turkey for Christmas

When it’s time for the family games we opt for a quiz. So that he doesn’t feel under pressure to answer questions, Tom becomes the quiz master  – a role he just loves! It’s also a family tradition that Tom chooses a favourite Swiss train video that we all watch together. This is his opportunity to share his special interest with us.

Make our expectations clear

Tom has fortunately outgrown many of the dietary restrictions he had as a young boy. He is happy to sit at the table with us now to enjoy his meal, which is fantastic. However, we know that immediately after eating he will need to leave the table for a movement break. We reassure him beforehand that this is OK and allowed so that he doesn’t become anxious about it or feel forced to sit at the table against his wishes.

Tom also knows that if, at any point during the day, the experience becomes overwhelming for him and he needs time away then it’s ok to go to another, quieter room to listen to his music. We explain that our guests will not be disappointed or disapproving about this ‘escape’. He understands that he can come back and join in whenever he feels ready.

Learning and understanding at Christmas for an anxious teen with autism

It takes time to learn what works best for your child and family so don’t be disappointed if things don’t go as smoothly as you’d like. Being able to recognise and understand what makes Tom anxious at Christmas is something that we have had to work on and develop over the years. 

Calm and consistent reassurance, given both verbally and visually, has proven the most effective way to help Tom enjoy this special occasion,  which makes for a happier time for all the family.

What tips can you share that make Christmas social events more manageable and less stressful in your house?

Useful resources:

  • cover image sticker pack christmas & birthdays

    Christmas & birthdays

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image what to expect at christmas kit

    I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays

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Surviving Christmas with help from TomTag

family visits tags

Christmas is a magical and exciting time but for many children with autism and other SEN, the festive period can be anything but wonderful.

Changes in routine, a house pulsating with flashing Christmas lights and a steady stream of visitors can be too overwhelming and lead to sensory overload, anxiety, distress and confusion.
Making adjustments that help your child cope better at this time of the year will hopefully allow them and all the family to have a more enjoyable and relaxing experience.
It’s also a good opportunity to work on important social skills that can be transferred to other situations at different times of the year as well.

my daily routineJust another day

Keeping to the same familiar routines as much as possible, even on Christmas Day, can be key to helping things run more smoothly. There are no rules to say things have to be done a certain way so do whatever suits your family best.

It’s sometimes not possible to avoid some disturbance or change to the regular schedule at this time of year. Children who struggle with changes to routine can find this very unsettling. If they use a visual schedule at home or school, this is a great way to make sure they know about (and can prepare themselves for) anything different that’s going to happen.

If different or unusual foods are likely to be an issue, think about preparing and freezing your child’s favourite meal ahead of the big day so that it’s easy to serve alongside everyone else’s dinner and gives you one thing less to worry about.

decorations and christmas symbolsDecorations

Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for 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 if needed.

Be aware of sensory triggers such as balloons, Christmas crackers, party poppers, festive music – consider using headphones or ear defenders at parties, carol concerts or similar events if sudden or loud noises are disturbing.  

Use an “All about Christmas” symbol list or simple social story to support a conversation with your child to familiarise them with all the different things they can expect to find at Christmas time.

Social expectations

family visits tagsChristmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when you’re going to parties, visiting family and friends, church services, etc.

Maybe even keep a separate tag as a checklist to show all the family members they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group (eg. hugs are ok for family, hand shake for friends, etc.).

There’ll be lots of opportunities to teach social skills such as learning to greet visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you. Include relevant symbols in your visit schedule list or use another tag that you keep handy for a discreet reminder of social behaviour rules.

Presents

Many children with autism don’t particularly like surprises and aren’t good at faking delight if they get an unwanted gift. Some may prefer to have their presents left unwrapped or, if they do like the unwrapping part, they might want you to tell them what’s inside first.

They may also be overwhelmed by a large number of presents in one go. Try introducing them one at a time over the day (or several days) or adopt an advent calendar-style approach, bringing out 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!

Relax!

Above all, remember that this is your Christmas as well. Get as much support from family and friends as possible and share out the workload wherever you can. Get children involved by giving them jobs to do which will keep them occupied and give them something to focus on.

We used the kit I know what to expect at Christmas & birthdays for the examples here. We know it can be a particularly taxing and stressful time of year for our loved ones with extra sensory and emotional needs, so there’s also an expanded version of the basic kit available which includes additional tags and blank buttons plus a Feelings & Emotions sticker pack. We call this our Christmas survival kit

Download this guide for free

We’re building a collection of handy guides and tip sheets that you can download for free and print at home.

  • cover image download christmas

    Christmas survival guide

  • cover image download feelings tag

    Feelings tag-o-meter

  • cover image download going shopping

    Going shopping

  • cover image download school morning routines

    School morning routines

 

 

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TomTag life skill of the month – coping with Christmas – Dec 2015

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – but not for everyone.

LIFE SKILL dec coping with christmasChristmas 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.christmas tag 1

christmas 1Just another day

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.


christmas 2No surprises

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.


christmas 3Decorations

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 4Social expectations

christmas tag 2Christmas 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.


christmas 5Presents

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!


christmas 6

Relax!

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!

 

Other resources

The NAS has compiled a list of tips to help you through the festive period.

Do you have any great tips you can share?