Everyone loves Christmas – it’s a fact. However, for people with autism it can be both a time of great excitement and high anxiety. In today’s post, I wanted to discuss the many ways in which an autism friendly atmosphere can be created during the holiday season, so that when the 25th does comes around, it will feel less like walking on egg shells and more like ‘walking in the air’.
Here are 5 easy steps for creating an autism friendly Christmas:
1. Christmas Sensory Friendly.
Problem: Many people with autism can suffer from sensory overload. As a result, things like strong smells from festive foods or flickering lights from Christmas trees can pose a very real problem.
Solution: Two very effective ways of helping an autistic person with their sensory issues are:
- Give the individual more control over what will affect them e.g letting them set up the Christmas Tree and ornaments or, if they are not capable of doing so, then asking them for their opinion when setting up the Christmas tree and ornaments
- Preparing the person in advance for what they can expect over the festive season e.g. some people with autism can find the constant use of jingle bells in songs alarming. Playing this kind of music quietly in the background, during the lead up to Christmas, can make the effects of the repetitive, high pitched noise tolerable (sadly no amount of preparation will ever make Noddy Holder screaming ‘it’s Christmas’ more tolerable).
2. Preparing for Small Talk can Make a Big Difference.
Problem: It’s no secret that many people with autism suffer from communication issues. This can present considerable difficulty at Christmas as ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ also happens to be the most social time too.
Solution: To help with this, it is important to follow certain autistic communication strategies, like letting the person with autism lead the conversation, or making it clear when you are asking them a question. These tactics, along with speaking slowly, will help to make conversation easier to process for someone on the spectrum. As will learning how to spot when a person with autism is becoming overwhelmed and needs to leave a conversation. Signs of this may include:
- The person might start making statements about what else they want/have to do
- The person might become less responsive, giving short answers to questions
- The person might start looking around the room (this is different from not making eye contact)
If you pick up on any of these signs, try to end the conversation and see what that person does. If they go, it doesn’t mean they were finding you boring, it just means they were running out of drive and needed to ‘recharge their batteries’ – on the other hand, you might just be boring (something which I unfortunately don’t have a solution for).
3. Presents Don’t Have to be a Surprise.
Problem: In the same way that you can cry with happiness, people with autism can experience anxiety attacks from being too excited. This is especially true when it comes to opening presents on Christmas morning, as all the possibilities, brightly wrapped gifts and overwhelming options is enough to make a person with autism, run to the upstairs bathroom, throw his head in the toilet and puke up every last chocolate from this year’s advent calendar…. not that this has ever happened to me before…
Solution: No one likes a party-pooper, but one easy way to solve this, is to leave the gifts unwrapped and out of sight. This way, you can introduce each present one by one to the person with autism and reduce the risk of the person becoming overwhelmed.
Another possible solution to this, is to keep a stimulating device close by so that, if things start becoming overwhelming, the autistic person has something to distract themselves with. Great examples of stimulating devices can be found in my ‘Awesome Autism Christmas Gift Ideas’ post.
4. Creating a Plan for Someone with Autism Always Helps.
Problem: I often say that people with autism love routines, but the truth is, people with autism don’t love routine we rely on them. Routines bring certainty and provide structure to the random moments which make up life. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, so let me just cut right to it. Christmas is unpredictable and as a result, people with autism, can feel like they are going to battle all the previously mentioned problems, without our most valuable coping mechanism: our schedule.
Solution: Christmas doesn’t have to be unpredictable; given careful planning and prior notice of what’s to come/expect on the day, most people with autism can be put at ease. Make sure you repeat the details of this plan up to and including the big day. This means if you are just learning this till today, create that plan now.
For those on the spectrum who have difficulty understanding verbal plans, use images in sequence to better explain what they will experience on the 25th (social stories). Remember pictures will often be taken literally. So, if you show a non-verbal person with autism a picture of a Christmas meal, with pigs in blankets on it, there sure as hell better be pigs in blankets on the menu.
5. Creating a Realistic Plan for Someone with Autism Helps Even More.
Problem: to some, the idea of creating a plan for someone with autism may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how few people can’t stick to their own schedule. Telling someone with autism what’s to come over the festive period and then changing the plan at the last second, is going to cause lots of unnecessary stress; as is developing a timetable which is unrealistic and results in the person with autism being overwhelmed before the end of the day.
Solution: Make sure you leave plenty of time when you are travelling somewhere over the festive period, and once you get there, plan for the uncertain certainty that you will stay longer than expected.
On the actual day, It is better to complete all major activities early (e.g. present opening and large family gatherings). This leaves us time to retreat back to the comfort of our routine, if we need it later on.
Finally, If a plan does go wrong at the last minute (which it will), make sure there are certain things which won’t change (such as going home at a certain time, eating a certain food or seeing a certain person). This way, someone with autism will have an anchor to keep them grounded if when things go wrong, but, for the love of God, make sure nothing stands in the way of us getting home in time for Doctor Who!.
Carry on the Conversation
These are just a few ways to make Christmas more autism friendly. Let me know if you have any other tried and tested solutions. Alternatively, if you have any problems that I haven’t covered in this article, let me know in the comments below and I will aim to respond to them asap.
I can also be found on Twitter @AutismRevised and via my email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thank you for reading and I hope that everyone has an incredible Christmas!!
See you next Saturday, for more thoughts from across the spectrum.