As a child I absolutely adored the candlelit church service at Christmas. We would sing 9 carols and here 9 lessons or stories from the bible, surrounded by the beautiful glow of Christmas.
Needless to say, nowadays we can’t attend services like this (at the moment anyway). Kiddo’s sensory needs and lack of safety awareness make those events more than just a fire hazard. So instead, here are my nine lessons that I have learnt about hosting an autism friendly Christmas over the years:
1. Go with the flow.
Sounds obvious but actually it’s really hard. You book tickets to see Santa, there’s the school nativity, you want to decorate your house so that it could be a grotto itself. The sooner you accept the fact that your expectations may not be met, the sooner you will fall in love with Christmas all over again. It’s so important to distinguish between what our children can’t do, and what they won’t do at Christmas. The lack or routine, the sensory overload from all the lights and sparkle, it all contributes to a very difficult time for our autistic loved ones. They need you and after all, Christmas is about love and family. Don’t forget yours.
2. Present buying.
This took me a couple of years to get my head round. Don’t be tempted by all the commercial hype around the latest toy. Think about what your child REALLY wants. Last year I bought kiddo a beautiful wooden marble set. “He will DEFINITELY love this!” I thought. He played with it once. This year I watched really carefully and started to think outside the box. What are his true loves? Some examples of what he is getting include a pink donut cushion (with sprinkles on obviously), a tonne of surprise eggs and yet more playdoh. Yes he has had these presents before, but he so loves opening them! And it reduces the risk of a meltdown on Christmas if he is greeted with presents he is familiar and happy with.
This one hurt. Every year I had always gone all out with the decorations. They were EVERYWHERE. But I soon realised they were the sole cause of kiddo refusing to leave his room. I had to dial it back.
This year we have nailed it! Kiddo has decorated his own tree in one room, and he adores it. He takes things off and puts them back on as he sees fit. It’s so amazing to see him enjoy it so much. I on the other hand have my own room of decorations! Even if it’s your bedroom, make just one room Christmassy and then any autistic family members can choose to avoid that one room should they so wish. We have also put lots of decorations up outside our house for the world to see, where kiddo doesn’t feel overloaded by them. It’s led to a much happier household all round this year.
4. A breakout space.
This is critical, and not just for Christmas day. Whether it’s a tent, a whole room or an allocated space in the corner, make sure autistic children (or adults) have a quiet space where they can take themselves off to regulate. I try and avoid the bedroom if I can as I don’t want kiddo to feel like he has to stay upstairs with all the party fun happening down below, but totally appreciate that space may be an issue for most.
Leave some sensory toys and a tablet in that space for children to ‘escape’. They’re not being rude or anti social, they need that time. Don’t deny them the chance to press the reset button.
5. Visiting Santa.
I know from speaking to several people that this is one of the hardest aspects of Christmas. Autistic children become overloaded by grottos. There are several things you can do here. Firstly, check if there are any special needs friendly sessions happening at a grotto near you. If there aren’t, campaign for one! These things always start with one person, why can’t that be you? If you do attempt a grotto visit then be sure to call ahead and explain your child’s needs. Maybe they don’t want to experience the whole thing? Maybe Santa is enough, or maybe the big man is just a no go. How can you adapt the visit for your child? And if you really can’t manage it, consider getting a friend to dress up as Santa and knock on your door. After all, doesn’t Santa visit every child at home on Christmas eve??
6. Christmas dinner.
Guys, throw this one right out the window. Chicken nuggets all round! We don’t even attempt it with kiddo in this house. He has the same food he always has. Last year we had a massive success when he wanted to join us all at the table! He had his headphones on and was well into his iPad, but who cares?! My baby wanted to be included and this was the only way he could manage it. Don’t leave them out unless they conform to table manners. They may want to sit with you more than you know…
7. Friends and family.
You may think ive completely lost the plot here, but if you can then offer to host Christmas. It’s the best way. Your children have all their comforts and familiarity. You can create their safe space and no one will complain at having to cook chicken nuggets on Christmas day. Your house, your rules. If visiting people don’t like it, they can catch a ride with Rudolph and quite frankly, bugger off.
8. School timetables.
This is a tough one. When the school timetable changes and there are festivities happening round the clock, most children love it! I certainly did. But it’s an autistic child’s nightmare. There’s no routine. Costumes are painful and itchy. There’s music in every corner. You’re soaked in stage lights as you try and get through a Christmas play or performance. If it’s not academic or necessary, question your child’s school on their involvement if they are struggling. You know your child best, speak up for them.
9. New traditions.
And finally, come up with your own family traditions! Perhaps it’s making a gingerbread house out of Lego, or watching a certain Christmas film on repeat. The point is, Christmas can be whatever you make it. So make it yours.
Thanks for reading,