1. Advent calendar; now this might be a no-brainer but using a Christmas advent calendar is a sure-fire way to get your autistic child up to speed with Christmas. But perhaps not just using a standard advent calendar. Why not use one that you have made yourself you can use special doors with sweets or chocolate or sensory foods that they like to eat? Advent calendars can make an excellent Christmas gift prior to Christmas allow your child to get into the spirit of Christmas, long before time this is another key for planning ahead.
2. Create a mood board; this could be a Pinterest board, this might be something that you want to put together to add on their wall. Cut out pictures from Christmassy magazines that kind of thing to add to the board. These will represent to your child what Christmas means. The board will allow them to get familiar with the event. What we’re trying to do here is we’re enabling our child to understand what Christmas is all about; what it means, why we celebrate it and what we do by using pictures and images that your child can see every day. Once children can understand that usually takes the stress out of Christmas this is something we do tend to forget with autistic children.
3. Stress balls and comfort toys; you can use the stress ball or comfort toy when your role playing with your child about the certain things are going to happen over Christmas. Perhaps they might like to meet father Christmas but they’re a bit frightened of a strange man and red suit the long white beard! Act out a role play scenario about meeting father Christmas. You can get very creative here, perhaps even use some cotton balls to make a make shift beard to put on your face while you’re while you’re acting out the roleplay of meeting father Christmas. Always make sure comfort toy and the stress ball is on hand for difficult moments. If there’s something that you’d rather them not have around, I always suggest that Christmas just allow them to do everything that they want to do to make them feel stress free.
4. Prep them for their ideal Christmas; even allow them to take their comfort item to school. Nativity plays and Christmas carols and all sorts of things that go on at school usually are very stressful for a child. In fact, it can be a lot more stressful for them at school and this is at home! Years ago, I gave up trying to force my child as it were, into enjoying Christmas the way that we traditionally celebrated in the family. You know the sort of thing, sitting around a table eating turkey, watching the Queen’s Speech at 3 o’clock, unwrapping presents. Now, what I actually do with Jonathan is I let him have his own Christmas. I don’t try and get him to eat the roast turkey and the vegetables as anybody else. In fact, his favourite Christmas meal is a curry! I allow him to have a curry and he can spend all day if he wants upstairs on his lap top of his headphones on. Problem solved!
5. Get them involved; for a lot of autistic children the stress of Christmas can be the over sensory issues. The fact that suddenly there is a tree in the middle of their front room with flashing lights on it can be a bit of a shock, so the best thing to do with child if you really want to celebrate Christmas tradition at home is to get them involved. If you’re making things in the kitchen, get them to cook with you. If you’re putting up fairy lights on your Christmas tree allow them to turn the lights on and off themselves. OK, not actually sticking their fingers the socket and lighting themselves up getting some sort of fairy lights where there is it on/off switch that they can control themselves. You can get lots of little plastic tubs of battery operated fairy lights; things the kind of thing that people use in their homes all-year-round. Allow them to use this and then that will make them feel they are in control. If you’re cooking get them to feel the texture of the mixtures that you’re making all these sensory things will allow them to feel more stress free at Christmas.
6. Inform everyone; If you’re like me, you tend to have people who are going to come in and out of your house most of Christmas. People do like to come around and knock on the door almost spontaneously. For the autistic child, it can be hugely harrowing to hear the doorbell going or suddenly strange voices downstairs from neighbours or family who are popping around. Now that’s fine. You must not deter anybody from wanting to come and see your family and your child should experience after all this is normal life, this is what people do. The best thing to do is inform everybody who is likely to come around. Tell them that perhaps they would like to come around at a particular time of day when it is more suitable for you. Perhaps you’d like to engage your child in answering the door. Encourage people to be aware that there is a sensory issue. They do need to take this into account if they’re going to drop by. You will be glad you did. If you inform anyone visiting, it is surprising actually how many people will want to take that information on board and really help you.
7. Familiars! Now, this is a word I like to use an awful lot! Familiars is toys food sensory things it could be a favourite book; it could be a worry toy anything that your child likes to connect with and feel close and safe with. Use it use it as much as you can over Christmas. Allow them to eat what they want. Find familiarity in things; if they like a book or they like a particular ball or a toy or even something that you own perhaps a pillow case or something like that. A favourite towel or perhaps your cardigan that smells of you! Anything like that. Be creative and think outside the box. It doesn’t matter how silly, if it allows your child to feel less stressful over Christmas then by all means embrace it. After all, what’s more important? Your child’s comfort or actually whether they’re sitting down to meat and a half dozen veg on their plate? Prioritize and enable your child to just celebrate Christmas the way that they want to.
8. Quiet space; If your child likes to hide under their bed for comfort, if they got a cupboard or wardrobe they like to go and sit in then that’s absolutely fine. Allow them to do that make a special quiet place for them like a den. You can put some chairs together and put a couple sheets over the top and make a tent for them. Put the sensory things that they love inside this and allow them to make it their own. Put their favourite toys, some food that they like to eat perhaps something like to touch or hold. Perhaps your child is engaged wonderfully with tinsel! Allow your child to be embracing what they feel comfortable. Particularly within this quiet space, allow them to be themselves in this quiet corner and respect this quiet space as well, don’t show it off don’t let lots of other people come and see it. If your child wants to invite you into their quiet space then that’s fine but don’t be over bolshie in their quiet space. Allow it to be theirs and be respectful of your child’s quiet time and if they like, their privacy.
9. Plan ahead; I like to plan Christmas literally from September onwards. My son ends up rolling his eyes come Halloween but it does mean that he knows exactly what’s going to happen. Over Christmas always plan ahead, that’s the best thing you can do. Don’t allow it to suddenly to creep up on you because it might be just as stressful for you, but it’s going to be a thousand times more stressful for your child.
10. Don’t panic and don’t assume anything; I’ve known Christmases in the past when I’ve worked with autistic children and their families. The families have prepared for everything. They’ve planned for anything to go wrong. They have decided that their child is going to have their own Christmas and then suddenly on Christmas Day, the little girl or boy braces everything! They are unwrapping presents and singing Christmas carols goodness knows what else leaving the families with their jaws on the floor. Anything can happen, even your child might suddenly just say ‘hey I like this I’m going to get involved!’ Autism is a very strange thing. It’s a flexible thing. It moves with your child. It develops every day. It will shift and mould with your child as they grow. They might even be triggered by something at Christmas that particularly like. They might want to spend the entire day making about with a mince pie in their hands just because they’re not the texture of it. If that’s Christmas to them then let it be Christmas. Don’t expect it’s going to be harrowing. Don’t expect that the day is going to be stressful and full of anxiety because your child will feed off it. They say that autistic people don’t have empathy but I think that’s wrong. I think they do and if there’s anyone in the household who is going to understand how you are truly feeling it’s going to be autistic child. So relax and take a deep breath. Christmas will be just fine. You will find a way through it.