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.
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.
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?