Autism is a condition which affects around 700,000 people in the UK. That’s more than 1 in 100. autistic people see, feel, and hear the world differently to other people.
Symptoms are wide-ranging and can be personalised to each individual but there are certain characteristics that are shared by those on the Autistic Spectrum. It can affect both children and adults although typically features of the disorder begin during childhood.
Autistic people often struggle with change, and can benefit from routines which help them to cope with day to day tasks. This works especially well with autistic children. Christmas can be a difficult time for children and young people with autism, as there are lots of changes and normal routines often fly out of the window. Unusual food is eaten at odd times. There may be a tree indoors which can make their environment smell and look different. Decorations and lights can be distracting, and Christmas music can sound loud and noisy. The world becomes an unpredictable place which can cause anxiety and stress.
So, if you have a child with autism, how can you support them during the Christmas period so that they can enjoy the festivities without fear? Here are a few tips that might help you get through the festive period…
• Prepare early! Start talking about Christmas earlier than usual, discuss what it means to you and your family. Consider making a booklet with pictures of Christmas trees, decorations, and typical Christmas food – remember though if your child takes things they see literally they may expect things to be exactly how they are a shown in the pictures.
• Use a calendar to share any dates where activities are taking place that your child may need extra reassurance over – visits to see Santa, school performances, family visits, etc.
• Incorporate a daily activity that they will enjoy which is Christmas based such as opening a door on an advent calendar or switching the Christmas tree lights on every day. You can also include some free time each day which is not Christmas based to allow you to observe their anxiety levels and make adaptions to tasks during the rest of the day if required.
• Involve your child in choosing decorations for your tree and house, take them shopping and let them feel and touch them, this is especially important if they have sensory issues which need to be considered. Let them help you decorate your tree or provide them with a small tree of their own to decorate if you feel it’s appropriate. You can also spread the decorating out over a couple of days by putting the tree up first and then decorating it the day afterwards, this helps ease your child slowly into the changes to their surroundings.
• Sometimes lots of presents can be overwhelming for a child with autism. Consider staggering the opening of them into stages to be spread out during the day. Don’t be afraid to limit the amount of presents and request money or vouchers from family members to ensure there isn’t an overwhelming number of gifts to unwrap.
• Create a calm, quiet area in your house which is Christmas free that your child can go to if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed by all the festivities.
• Organise fun activities but be mindful of your own child’s issues – for instance if your child has sensitivity to noisy environments maybe taking them to see a pantomime would not be a good idea.
• Try to stick to your daily routine for as long as possible. It’s tempting to start doing things differently as soon as December arrives but the change in routine may cause a lot of anxiety to a child with autism.
• If you are hosting Christmas and will be having additional guests over the festive period, make them aware your child’s condition beforehand and explain how this affects them. Having a supportive and cooperative network will be beneficial to them and help ease their anxiety on the day. A house full of guests can be loud and noisy and children with autism may feel lost and crave attention – to try and avoid this give them small tasks to do during the day such as taking coats or handing out nibbles during the day.
• If you are visiting family and friends over the festive period pack a bag with lots of your child’s favourite things so they will have things which are familiar which can comfort them if they start to feel uneasy.
Most of all remember that Christmas should always be fun. With a bit of planning and ensuring you have strategies in place for difficult situations there’s a good chance your child will enjoy it too. Take care, and happy holidays!
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