The Christmas and holiday season is a time for family, friends, and fun. But for autistic and neurodivergent families, it can also be a time of stress and anxiety.
With all the festivities, lights, noise, family gatherings, presents and, of course, Christmas Day, it's no wonder some autistic kids or anyone with a sensory processing disorder has a hard time during this time of year.
As a parent of a neurodivergent child, you're probably feeling a mix of excitement and dread regarding how your child will handle the above and all the new sensory stimuli.
However, there are ways to make the Christmas period more enjoyable for both you and your children.
1. Plan ahead and set expectations
Now's the time to pull on all the sensory tools you have in your toolbox, plan for every contingent and ensure your child knows what to expect.
Before Christmas Day or whenever your holiday period kicks off, sit down with your child and explain what will be happening.
Where possible, create a social story or picture schedule that outlines the events of the day or week. This will help set your child at ease and feel more comfortable as they can start preparing themselves mentally and emotionally.
A united front and supportive environment make for an Autism friendly Christmas season and wherever possible, avoid any surprises that could trigger a meltdown. I know this is sometimes easier said than done. But educate those you will be around in advance too (if you haven't already) on this.
2. Keep routine as much as possible
Wherever possible, keep to your child's regular routine as much as possible. I know it's easy to let bedtimes slide or forget about scheduled therapies. But try to stick to the routine as best you can. A little bit of structure will go a long way in making your Autistic person feel more comfortable and relaxed about the day.
3. Create a sensory-friendly environment
Large crowds and loud noises can be overwhelming for many neurodivergent children or kids with sensory issues. A great way to make things more comfortable for your child is to find a quiet spot for them to hang out if needed.
Autistic kids can get overwhelmed easily so it might be helpful to have an "exit plan" in place to make a quick getaway if necessary. I always say if you have a plan and are prepared, you (hopefully!) won't need it. And remember, if you visit family or friends, take your child's sensory toys that they love.
4. Focus on quality family time
As a neurodiverse family, we've come to learn that less is more over the Christmas period. It can be disheartening sometimes when you see neurotypical friends and family's social media feeds or hear about everything they've crammed into their Christmas Day or holiday period.
But remember, we're all different, and our family's needs differ. Focus on what is right and what works for your family - quality time. And remember, not everything you see on social media is in context, either. That photo could have been the only two seconds of bliss they've had the whole time ;)
The days will hopefully go smoother by keeping things low-key, not overstimulating your child, and setting lower expectations. I say hopefully, as, at the end of the day, even best-laid plans can go astray or our amazing kids, as much as we love and adore them have other ideas.
Do what you can and enjoy the moments you can spend together. That's what makes Christmas special - making precious memories.
5. Food allergies and sensitivities
Many autistic kids have sensitivities to certain foods or ingredients. Be sure to check in with any family or friends about what dishes will be served so you can make alternative arrangements if necessary.
I also find it's a good idea to pack some safe snacks and drinks just in case your child doesn't find anything they can eat at the event.
6. Take a break
If things start to get overwhelming for either you or your child, take a break. What lights you or your child up, and do that?
- A walk
- Step outside for some fresh air
- Take a few minutes to yourself in another room
- Ground yourself by removing your shoes and standing on the grass
- Jumping on the trampoline
- Playing with pets
It's important to stay calm to try and avoid any meltdowns. So, do what works for you and your family.
7. Christmas presents
A lot of autistic people don't like surprises. Here are some tips to help make present time a happy occasion with your family and friends:
Talk to them
Open up the lines of communication and discuss with your child what they want for Christmas.
Depending on your child's age, have them make a list or help them make a list. And follow that list. That way, your child knows exactly what they are getting.
Write a letter to Santa
Encourage your Autistic child to write a letter to Santa or write one together. Ensure you're in the know and follow Santa's list. Feel free to nudge them in the way of our:
- Sensory toys
- Christmas squishmallows - we have Bartie the Elf and Jordan the Gingerbread Man (both are super cute and squishy, even if I do say so myself)
Again, use social stories to help prepare your child for presents and the idea of presents and the unknown. Speak to family and friends and make them aware of how uncomfortable not knowing what they are getting makes your child when it comes to presents. Educating those around you can go a long way to help with sensory sensitivities.
To wrap or not to wrap your child's gifts
By not wrapping your child's gifts, there is no element of surprise when it comes to Christmas morning. So, that is one way of alleviating the element of surprise for your child.
Do you love wrapping gifts and want to give your child the experience of unwrapping presents along with the rest of the family on Christmas morning? Why not attach a photo to the outside of the gift so that your young person can see exactly what they are receiving before opening things?
We are here to support your joyous Christmas season
The Christmas season is a special time of year. It's challenging for neurotypical families, so for neurodivergent families with ASD, ADHD, ADD and other unique neurodiversities, it's a time of year that's even more challenging.
Hopefully, the tips I've shared from my neurodivergent family to yours can help make your Christmas holidays more enjoyable for everyone involved.
- Plan ahead
- Stick to routines
- Take breaks when needed
- Focus on quality family time