Christmas can be great fun: it’s a time for good old-fashioned family time, when the usual routines follow Santa back up the chimney and melt in the snow.
Yet this is not usually the case if you have a son or daughter with a diagnosis of Asperger’s or Autism. You’ll know managing Asperger’s or Autism at Christmas can be a challenge for the whole extended family.
The change of routine – the carefree get-up-when-you-feel-like-it, and eat-when-you’re-hungry policies – usually cause havoc. That havoc leads to a visit from the Autism bad elves: Anxiety, Meltdown and Sensory Overload.
Kids with Asperger’s and Autism can have a great Christmas, too, but it takes a little preparation. The first consideration is to start planning early; this allows the child to take on board the necessary information that he or she needs to prevent a spike in anxiety as Christmas draws nearer.
How to Reduce Autism Sensory Overload at Christmas
- If you visit friends or family, take food you know your child will like. This also makes you a great house guest, as it minimises effort for your hosts, who will understand the need for you to give your child reliable favourite foods.
- Don’t present your child with new clothes during the holiday: only use clothes that are well-worn and comfy. If necessary, bribe grandparents not to buy clothes as presents. Your son or daughter needs familiarity, but a new fabric or pattern will only increase sensory overload at an already stressful time.
- Make a mind map of the Christmas celebrations with your child. Design the main days with him or her. Pens, coloring pencils and Post It notes are a must! Explain in full how things will work. It’s a good idea to devise a strategy for the lack of structure which other family members need. You do this by describing the kind of things that might happen: Grandpa might fall asleep after Christmas dinner. Everyone might plan to go for a walk, but be too tired in the end. Mention that family members may get involved in a range of activities. This allows a mental map to be made in your child’s brain, and reduces anxiety.
- Provide a safe space, free of sensory overload. Allow your child to take ‘time out’ there, especially when you notice their stress levels rising. There should be no decorations or trees in this place at all. It is fine to allow him or her to eat cheese straws or jam sandwiches in this den on Christmas Day. 25th December is not the day to press your child to eat different items.
- Have a few of your child’s favourite activities ready. This is just as important as chopping the veg in advance. You might think this is boring at such a fun time, but the child will appreciate the familiarity and the routine.
- Take your sensory kit wherever you go. This will reduce the chance of overload, whether you’re in a traffic jam on the way to see relatives, or you’re walking in the park.
- Scale down expectations. Think: ‘It’s a normal day, with injections of joy’. Christmas can be magical, but it may not be the best day ever, and that’s perfectly okay.
Each of these little things will reduce sensory overload and help you all to enjoy the festive season. Have a very merry Christmas.
Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).
We are providers of independent autism assessments throughout southern England, via Treetops.