A guide to surviving Christmas with autism

The festive period can be an exciting time, filled with celebration, fun and gift-giving, but for some people with autism, it can also be quite stressful.

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Lynden is his Christmas jumper decorating his family home's Christmas tree.
"My son deals with Christmas much better these days, but it hasn't always been like that"

By Amanda Bradfield, ECL Marketing Consultant and mum to young man with autism and learning disabilities.

As a mum of an 18-year-old lad with autism and learning disabilities. I have to say that last Christmas with all the restrictions meant we had a more relaxed and enjoyable Christmas without the social pressures! This year most people are hoping for a more ‘normal’ Christmas, so here’s our top tips for ensuring everyone in the family has fun:

Back to topPrepare, Prepare, Prepare!

Visual timetable

For many people with autism one of the most difficult things about Christmas is dealing with the change to routine – school/college/day services close for the Christmas break, the house is filled with decorations, guests come to our homes and even the food tends to be different. Help your family member with autism prepare for these changes with a Christmas calendar or even a visual timetable so they know what to expect……and more importantly when it will all blissfully come to an end!

Back to topThere’s no need to conform to the norm

Do it the way that works for your family

With Christmas comes so many traditions that we feel bound to adhere to, plus we are usually dealing with expectations from extended family members and friends that may not be fully conversant with the quirks of autism. All of this combines to create a pressure pot which can lead to high anxiety and meltdowns – not fun for anyone!

I remember trying to coerce my son into opening mountains of presents, eat turkey at the dinner table with the rest of the family and perch on Santa’s knee, because that is what I expected (and if I’m honest, wanted) my young son to want to do, but life got so much easier the day I let him open his presents as and when he wanted, let him eat sausages off a lap tray in another room and avoid all Santa’s grottos! Take the pressure off yourself, do it the way that works for your family, and communicate in advance with any visitors so they are fully aware and understanding (and if they’re not, don’t invite them!)

Back to topDecorations or sensory overload?

Give time to adapt to the changes

For some people with autism the Christmas decorations and sparkly lights are a positive sensation, however for others, dealing with furniture being moved around to accommodate the tree, and crazy flashing lights can overload the senses.

For those that struggle, consider introducing (and taking down) the decorations in stages to give the person time to adapt to the changes and maybe create Christmas-free areas or rooms where the person can escape to.

Back to topThe pressure of presents

Expectation of an ‘appropriate’ reaction

Everyone loves presents right? Not necessarily! For our loved ones with autism, the pressure of being ‘watched’ as they unwrap the gifts, the expectation of an ‘appropriate’ reaction to the gift from Great Auntie Doris, and the unexpectedness of the contents can cause huge anxiety. My son loves present opening now, but if he’s not impressed with the contents it just gets chucked to one side, in fact sometimes he even does that with the presents he loves which can be embarrassing if I haven’t pre-warned the present giver. When he was small and present opening was just too much, I learnt to let him open presents slowly and over the course of several days and even now I liaise with family and friends to help them buy him something he will be pleased with. For those that can’t bear the element of surprise, I have friends that tell their family member the contents of the gift in advance, either verbally or with pictures, or even ask for gifts to be given unwrapped.

Back to topFestive food

Plan the menu in advance

Many of our loved ones with autism have a limited diet of foods that they find acceptable, serve up what makes them happy on Christmas day and if you’re going elsewhere for Christmas dinner plan the menu with the host in advance, you could even take your own food with you if it helps.

Being expected to sit at a dinner table with lots of others can be a huge pressure so limit your expectations of them, ask them to do one course if you think they can stand it, let them have a ‘comforter’ at the table (my son will do it if he’s wearing headphones and listening to music) or maybe just forgo the traditional sit-down meal and have a buffet!

Bear in mind that sugar overload too, it can often be a trigger or exacerbate those unwanted behaviours.

Back to topTo conclude

We hope these top tips are helpful to those families that have to adjust to a ‘different’ kind of Christmas and remember, if after Christmas you feel your loved one could benefit from greater stimulation, the opportunity to socialise, learn new skills or perhaps even be supported into employment, then our Day Services and Inclusive Employment team are ready to provide expert support and guidance.

My son deals with Christmas much better these days but it hasn't always been easy, adjusting my expectations has been key to making the festive season enjoyable. Once I took the pressure off, he started to find his own joy in it.

Amanda Bradfield, ECL Marketing Consultant and mum to young man with autism

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