Whilst Christmas is undoubtedly a time of joy, the weeks leading up to the big day can be exhausting and overwhelming for all of us. If as adults, we are feeling burnt out by the hectic schedules, social gatherings, family visits, expectations, and the loud and repetitive Christmas music, it’s easy to see how children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or sensory challenges can find this time particularly challenging. The festive season is characterised by more crowds, more outings, different food, change in routine, bright and flashing lights and more visitors and family members in our homes – all of which can be stressful for some children. For this reason, we’ve compiled some tips that you can use to minimise your child’s anxiety or overwhelm and make the festive season an enjoyable one for the whole family.
Preparing Your Child for Changes in Routine
Preparing your child for Christmas should start as early as November, when decorations start to pop up in stores and your daily routines are interrupted with a busier than usual schedule. Having a calendar or a visual schedule that your child can easily refer to that gives them prior warning of school or kinder events, shopping days, social engagements, when family will visit your home etc, can help them enormously. Encourage them to cross off each day and event as it passes.
This also helps them to visual how many days are left until things go back to normal. You can make your own or check out these.
We’d recommend sticking to ordinary routines such as mealtimes, bath time and bedtimes as much as possible when plans allow, as children with ASD often find comfort in predictability and this will help alleviate the stress brought on by other less familiar things from their day.
With so many fun events and family activities to choose from in the lead up to Christmas, there is the temptation to try to fit it all in. However, after a busy year at work, school or kinder, usually the whole family is in need of some down time. Unscheduled time at home can be a great way to counteract the hype of Christmas, and allow children with ASD to enjoy the predictability and routine that their nervous systems crave1. Be realistic about what your child will be able to cope with and get pleasure from. For example, a night at home on the couch watching a movie together might be more enjoyable and less stressful for everyone than attending the local ‘turning on of the Christmas lights.’
At any other time of the year, the idea of a man entering your home in the dead of night when you are all in bed would be enough to make most adults sleep with one eye open. And we certainly wouldn’t want our child to go and sit on a stranger’s lap in a busy shopping mall ordinarily, just to have their photo taken. So, it’s not surprising that Santa can be scary for lots of kids, and even more so for kids with ASD. Be guided by your child’s reaction to Santa, and consider sending a letter or an email to Santa about presents rather than visiting one in person.
Kids with ASD often don’t like surprises. Rather than creating a feeling of excitement and anticipation, being handed a wrapped, unknown gift, can be a source of anxiety for children with autism.
The Source Kids website has some fantastic suggestions for dealing with this issue.
· Pre-warn them what their present will be so they will not worry that they will not get what they want.
· Teach them appropriate things to say when they are given presents, including what to say if they do not like the present they are given. A social story may help here.
· Tell relatives of suitable things to buy for your child.
· Wrap your child’s gift in cellophane so they can see what it is when it is under the tree to reduce the stress of the unknown.
· Reduce the chances of your child being overwhelmed by too many gifts by giving them one at a time over a period or suggesting that relatives give your child money or vouchers to be used later2.
Over the Christmas period we tend to buy, prepare and eat foods that aren’t a part of our everyday diet. Trying new foods can be another anxiety trigger for some children. Showing your child visuals of how Christmas dinner, or other traditional Christmas foods look may help them to alleviate some food-related challenges.
However, if your child doesn’t want to try unfamiliar food (whether at home or elsewhere) allowing your child to have familiar foods that they will eat is a far preferable solution to an all-out battle and/or meltdown on Christmas Day. When not dining in your own home, we’d recommend taking food with you that you know your child will eat as a back up.
Don’t get caught up in thoughts or other family members ideas about how Christmas ‘should’ be, or how your child ‘should’ behave. Christmas can pose added challenges for children with ASD and a range of challenges and their families. It may be about reducing some meltdowns and educating family and friends about the ones that you can and can’t avoid3.
3 Source Kids