The holiday season is meant to be a time of joy and togetherness, but for families with neurodivergent children, putting together an autism-friendly Christmas can bring unique challenges.
You need a strategy, and that’s where I come in.
For the last twenty years I have worked with autistic children and their families as a clinical psychologist. On top of this, autism runs in my family and I have first-hand experience of planning autism-friendly Christmases.
Your Autism-Friendly Christmas Strategy
Christmas can be overwhelming for autistic people, leaving family members feeling anxious and unsure of how to navigate this time of year. Creating an inclusive and supportive environment is crucial for everyone’s well-being.
Join me as I dive into different ways to make this festive season a memorable one, without compromising anyone’s comfort or happiness. It will benefit the whole family.
Of course, every autistic child has different strengths, challenges and needs. For that reason, please adapt my recommendations to suit your child.
So let’s get started on our journey towards an autism-friendly Christmas!
Tips for Enjoying Christmas with an Autistic Child
1. Clear Communication
Clear communication is crucial for autistic kids.
During this time of year, there are often many new and exciting experiences that can be overwhelming for autistic individuals.
To help alleviate any anxiety or confusion, it’s important to use clear and concise language when explaining holiday traditions or plans.
Explain clearly what will happen, breaking it down into as much or as little detail as required to reassure your child.
2. Visual Supports
In addition to verbal communication, visual supports can be a massive help in enhancing understanding and reducing stress.
Consider using visual schedules or social stories to outline the events and activities that will take place during the Christmas season.
These visual aids provide a concrete representation of what to expect, helping the autistic child navigate through the festivities more comfortably.
3. Familiar Routines and Predictable Schedules
Autistic kids generally thrive on routine and predictability, making it essential to incorporate familiar routines into an autism-friendly Christmas.
While some flexibility may be required, try to maintain regular meal times, bedtimes, and other daily rituals as much as possible.
This stability provides an important sense of security for your autistic child amidst the excitement of the holiday season.
To further reduce anxiety, create a predictable schedule for each day during Christmas time, and a separate one for Christmas Day. The schedule should include specific times for activities such as decorating the tree, visiting Santa Claus (or Father Christmas), opening presents, and engaging in other festive traditions.
Sharing this schedule with your autistic child in advance will allow them to mentally prepare for each event and transition smoothly between activities.
4. Sensory Breaks and Quiet Spaces
The sensory overload experienced by many autistic people can be intensified during the bustling atmosphere of Christmas gatherings.
Supporting your child’s sensory system and ensuring it doesn’t reach breaking point should be your absolute priority.
To prevent meltdowns or sensory overload episodes in an autistic child, encourage regular sensory breaks throughout the day. These breaks provide opportunities for your child to recharge in a calm environment.
Designate quiet spaces within your home where your child can retreat if they become overwhelmed by noise or stimulation. Fill these spaces with comforting items like soft blankets or sensory toys that can help them relax. Make sure they are free of Christmas decorations which can be overstimulating.
Creating a Sensory-Friendly Environment for an Autism-Friendly Christmas
If your child has sensory issues, creating a sensory-friendly environment is crucial. This is more difficult if you are not the host.
You will need to start communicating early with whoever is hosting the celebrations, to ensure they fully understand the challenges for your child.
The holiday season can be overwhelming for autistic children and young people due to the bright lights, loud noises, and overwhelming decorations commonly associated with this time of year.
But with some simple adjustments, you can ensure that everyone can enjoy a calm and enjoyable Christmas experience.
Let’s explore some strategies for adapting the environment to create an autism-friendly Christmas.
1. Minimize Bright Lights, Loud Noises, and Overwhelming Decorations
One of the main fight or flight triggers for autistic people is sensory overload.
The combination of bright Christmas lights, loud music, and crowded spaces can lead to feelings of anxiety and discomfort.
To create a more calming environment:
- Opt for soft lighting instead of bright lights: Consider using fairy lights or dimmed lamps to create a warm and cozy atmosphere.
- Keep music at a comfortable volume: Avoid playing loud or repetitive music that may cause distress.
- Limit decorations: While it’s tempting to go all out with holiday decor, keep in mind that too many visual elements can be overwhelming. Choose a few key decorations rather than filling every corner of your house.
2. Use Calming Sensory Tools like Weighted Blankets or Fidget Toys
Sensory tools are invaluable. Consider incorporating the following items into your Christmas setup:
- Weighted blankets: These blankets provide deep pressure stimulation which can help promote relaxation.
- Fidget toys (also known as stim toys): These small handheld objects allow individuals to engage their senses in a controlled manner, helping them stay focused and calm.
3. Design a Visually Organized Space
Creating an organized space is essential for minimizing sensory overload during Christmas celebrations.
Arrange furniture strategically. Create clear pathways and avoid clutter to ensure a sense of order in the room and allow an easy escape if your child needs a break from the excitement.
If your child is going to be in a busy room for a long period, make sure there is a quiet space or cozy corner with soft lighting they can retreat to for quiet time if they start to get overwhelmed.
Ask your child what other adjustments you could make to the environment to help them feel more relaxed.
Strategies for Dealing with Sensory Challenges at Christmas
1. Noise-Canceling Headphones or Ear Defenders
One of the most effective strategies for managing auditory sensory challenges over Christmas is to use noise-canceling headphones or ear defenders.
For autistic people, loud noises or too much background noise can be overwhelming and trigger sensory overload.
The bustling atmosphere of holiday gatherings and extra socialising can exacerbate these sensitivities.
With noise-canceling headphones or ear defenders, autistic children can often feel more in control of their experience during the holiday festivities and prevent getting overstimulated.
Listening to headphones can also allow your autistic child to zone out for a while if socialising gets too much. Whilst of course you don’t want your child to do this all the time, it can be an effective strategy for taking a sensory break.
2. Activities Catering to Individual Sensory Preferences
Another valuable approach is offering alternative activities that cater to individual sensory preferences and soothe your child’s sensory system.
Consider incorporating a variety of sensory-friendly activities into your celebrations.
Here are some ideas:
- Providing fidget toys or stress balls for those who benefit from tactile stimulation.
- Creating a calm corner with soft lighting and cozy seating for individuals who need a break from bright lights.
- Offering art stations where people can engage in creative expression through painting, drawing, or sculpting.
- Organizing gentle movement activities like yoga sessions or dance classes that promote body awareness without overwhelming stimuli.
- Mix in some movement activities like dancing, as these regulate the nervous system.
Navigating Sensory Overload at Christmas: Prioritizing Quiet Periods
Recognizing signs of sensory overload in your autistic child during Christmas gatherings is important. They may not be able to recognize the signs by themselves. Preventing sensory overload is much better than dealing with it once it has happened.
Christmas presents, the Christmas tree, the presents, bright lights and decorations… it’s easy to see how your child can get overwhelmed at Christmas.
As I’ve already mentioned plan in quiet periods each day and designate quiet spaces, to allow your child to recharge and decompress even if they seem fine. These periods allow them to step away from the noise, lights, and other sensory stimuli that can quickly build up.
It’s a good idea to check in with your child regularly. Be proactive about it. Do you (or they) see any early warning signs of overwhelm? If so, guide them towards their quiet space.
Communicating the importance of respecting personal boundaries during these quiet periods is crucial.
It’s essential for family members and friends to understand that these moments are not about exclusion but rather about self-care and managing sensory overload. Encourage loved ones to give your child space without judgment or interruption.
An Autism-Friendly Christmas: Extra Rest, Down time and Sleep
Ensuring enough alone time, rest and sleep are all important aspects of an autism-friendly Christmas period for your child.
This will be needed due to the extra energy exerted during social interactions and sensory processing.
Your child’s “battery” can easily become depleted and needs regular recharging. This is absolutely essential to prevent burnout at Christmas.
Autism-Friendly Christmases: Individualized Food Options and Managing Dietary Challenges
Providing allergen-free or special dietary options is important for so many autistic children. Many autistic children have food sensitivities or allergies that can make mealtime challenging, especially during Christmas gatherings. It can be hard for relatives to understand this.
On top of this of course, it’s likely that your child has sensory challenges which cause them to avoid certain foods or food groups. Family members may mistakenly think your child is merely “fussy”.
I recommend planning ahead for your Christmas meals so you can ensure it’s a pleasant an enjoyable experience for your child as well as those around them.
Educating family members about potential food sensitivities related to autism spectrum disorders is going to be essential. It’s important to raise awareness among your loved ones so they can understand and support your child rather than having unrealistic expectations that they will eat anything presented, or becoming cross with them.
This video by the Transforming Autism Project is helpful to share:
Autistic people often thrive on routine and familiarity, so sudden changes in their diet or mealtime routine can be overwhelming.
Balancing traditional Christmas dishes with familiar foods can help create a sense of comfort for your child. For example, perhaps they can try some Christmas dinner, with some of their familiar pasta on the side.
Here are some strategies to consider:
- Create visual menus: Use visual aids like pictures or simple descriptions of each dish to help communicate what will be served during the meal. This helps your child better understand what they can expect and reduces anxiety about unfamiliar foods.
- Involve your child in meal planning: Involve your child in the menu planning process. Ask for their input on what foods they feel comfortable eating or if there are any particular dishes they would like included.
- Prepare familiar side dishes: While traditional Christmas meals may involve numerous changes from regular meals, incorporating familiar side dishes can provide a sense of comfort. For example, serving chicken nuggets alongside the main course may be a simple yet effective way to ensure there is something familiar and enjoyable for autistic children.
- Create a calm eating environment: If needed, provide a quiet space separate from the main table where your child can eat comfortably. If not, try to ensure your child is located next to calmest family members and those who understand sensory overwhelm. This gives your child the best chance to focus on their food and enjoy the meal without feeling overwhelmed.
Remember that small changes can make a big difference in ensuring your child has an enjoyable Christmas experience.
Autism-Friendly Christmas: Prioritizing Routine and Predictability
Autistic children generally thrive on routine and predictability, which can be challenging during the holiday season.
By implementing strategies that prioritize routine as much as you can, you can create an autism-friendly Christmas that reduces anxiety and promotes stability for your child.
Here are some essential steps to consider:
Using Visual Schedules and Outlining Daily Activities Throughout the Holiday Season
Visual schedules are a great way of providing a clear outline of what to expect each day.
During the Christmas period, when routines tend to change, it is crucial to create visual schedules that incorporate both familiar and new activities.
These schedules should be prominently displayed in a central location where your child can easily refer to them.
Consider using social stories alongside the visual schedules. Social stories are short narratives that explain social situations or events in a simplified manner, helping children with autism understand what will happen during specific activities.
For instance, you could create a social story about Christmas morning and how it differs from regular mornings.
Reinforcing Consistent Bedtime Routines During the Christmas Period
Maintaining consistent bedtime routines is important for autistic children throughout the year.
However, it becomes even more crucial during the excitement of the holiday season when sleep disruptions may occur due to anticipation or changes in schedule. This is important for autistic children of all ages including teens.
Stick to established bedtime rituals such as reading a book together or listening to calming music before bed.
Ensure your child’s bedroom provides an environment conducive to relaxation by minimizing distractions and creating a soothing atmosphere.
Preparing Autistic Children for Christmas Changes in Routine to Minimize Anxiety
While some changes in routine are inevitable during Christmas, preparing your child in advance can significantly reduce anxiety and potential meltdowns.
Begin by discussing any modifications that will occur well ahead of time, using visual aids and social stories to illustrate the changes.
For example, if Christmas morning typically involves opening presents immediately upon waking up, but this year there will be a delay due to visiting relatives, explain the new routine in advance. Emphasize that the change is temporary and reassure your child that they will still have a great time.
Consider creating a structured program for the days leading up to Christmas. Outline specific activities and events on a calendar or through visual cues so that your child knows what to expect each day. This predictability can help alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of security.
Autism-Friendly Christmas: Promoting Empathy, Understanding, and Acceptance Among Relatives
During Autism Christmas gatherings, fostering empathy and understanding among all family members is crucial for creating an inclusive environment where neurodivergent children feel accepted and supported.
Here are some strategies that can help promote these positive attitudes:
- Encourage open conversations: Provide opportunities for relatives to ask questions about autism without judgment or stigma. This dialogue will help dispel misconceptions and increase awareness.
- Offer perspective-taking exercises: Engage family members in activities that encourage them to put themselves in an autistic child’s shoes. This could involve simulating sensory sensitivities through interactive games or role-playing scenarios.
- Lead by example: As adults, it’s essential to model empathy and acceptance towards autistic children. By demonstrating understanding and patience, other family members will follow suit.
Providing family members with resources in advance – such as books or online materials – can deepen their understanding of autism.
Here are some recommendations:
- “All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism” by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer is a beautifully illustrated book that introduces young readers to the experiences of an autistic zebra named Zane.
- “The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Autism” by Ellen Sabin offers practical tips and activities for children to understand and support their autistic peers.
- The Autism Society website provides comprehensive information on autism, including resources for parents, siblings, and extended family members.
An Autism-Friendly Christmas: Embracing Inclusivity
The festive period is a time for joy, love, and togetherness. It’s meant to be a season filled with excitement, laughter, and the exchange of gifts.
However, it’s important to remember that not everyone experiences the Christmas period in the same way.
For autistic people and their families, this time of year can bring unique challenges.
Inclusive Activities For your Autism-Friendly Christmas
When planning your festivities, consider incorporating activities that cater to the diverse interests of all family members, including those on the autism spectrum.
This could involve setting up stations with different sensory experiences or providing options for quieter activities alongside more energetic ones.
By offering a range of choices, you create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and engaged.
- Set up a crafting station where individuals can make their own wrapping paper or decorations.
- Organize a movie night featuring holiday films that appeal to various tastes and preferences.
- Plan outdoor activities such as building snowmen or going for winter walks in nature.
Open Family Dialogue About Acceptance and Celebrating Differences
One key aspect of embracing inclusivity is promoting open communication about differences within the family unit.
Encourage conversations about autism and an atmosphere where questions are welcomed and understanding is cultivated.
- Share educational resources about autism with family members to increase awareness.
- Encourage siblings to ask questions about autism in a safe and non-judgmental space.
- Foster empathy by discussing how everyone has unique strengths and challenges.
Incorporating Sensory-Friendly Traditions
The sensory experience plays a significant role in the lives of autistic individuals. By incorporating sensory-friendly traditions, you can ensure that the festive season is enjoyable for everyone.
- Consider using alternative wrapping materials such as fabric or reusable bags to accommodate sensory sensitivities.
- Opt for softer lighting and minimize flashing decorations that may be overwhelming.
- Create a quiet space where anyone can retreat if they feel overwhelmed by the festivities.
By embracing inclusivity and making small adjustments to our Christmas celebrations, we can create an environment that caters to the needs of all family members.
An autism-friendly Christmas is one that allows everyone to fully participate in the joy and magic of the holiday season.
Creating a Happy and Inclusive Autism-Friendly Christmas Experience: Summary
Creating a happy and inclusive autism-friendly Christmas experience requires understanding and accommodating the unique needs of autistic family members.
By implementing the following strategies, you can ensure a joyful celebration that promotes inclusivity and minimizes sensory challenges:
- Tips for Enjoying Christmas with an Autistic Child: Plan ahead, communicate expectations clearly, and involve your child in holiday preparations to reduce anxiety.
- Creating a Sensory-Friendly Environment for an Autism-Friendly Christmas: Use soft lighting, provide noise-cancelling headphones or a quiet, safe space to retreat to, and limit overwhelming decorations to create a calming atmosphere.
- Strategies for Dealing with Sensory Challenges during Autism Christmas: Identify triggers and implement coping mechanisms such as deep pressure techniques or fidget toys to help manage sensory overload.
- Prioritizing Quiet Periods to Navigate Sensory Overload: Schedule regular breaks in a quiet environment to allow individuals on the spectrum to recharge and prevent overwhelming stimulation.
- Including Autism-Friendly Food Options and Managing Dietary Challenges at Christmas: Offer alternative food choices that accommodate dietary restrictions or sensitivities commonly associated with autism.
- Prioritizing Routine and Predictability for an Autism-Friendly Christmas: Maintain familiar routines during the holiday season to provide comfort and stability for individuals who thrive on predictability.
- Managing Extended Family Expectations and Sensitivities during Autism-Friendly Christmas: Communicate openly about your child’s needs with family members, educating them about autism while setting realistic expectations for their interactions.
- Explaining Autism to Family, Especially Children, during Autism Christmas: Encourage open dialogue about autism with family members, particularly children, fostering understanding, empathy, and acceptance.
- Embracing Inclusivity For an Autism-Friendly Christmas: Create opportunities for everyone to participate in activities by adapting traditions or introducing new ones that cater to diverse abilities.
Remember, every person is unique, so adapt these suggestions to suit your loved one’s specific needs.
How can I help my autistic child enjoy opening presents during Christmas?
Opening presents can be overwhelming for autistic children due to sensory stimuli and surprises. To help them enjoy this experience:
- Prepare them in advance by discussing the concept of gift-giving and practicing unwrapping.
- Consider whether your child can manage surprise gifts (such as unexpected new toys) or if they would be better off knowing in advance what they will get. If surprises are too destabilizing, why not recommend that relatives buy them a more predictable gift such as a gift card.
- Gradually introduce new sensations like tearing wrapping paper or the sound of crinkling.
- Offer support with gentle encouragement and allow breaks if needed.
What are some sensory-friendly activities I can incorporate into our autism-friendly Christmas celebration?
Consider engaging in activities that promote sensory exploration while respecting individual preferences. Some ideas include:
- Creating a calm sensory corner with tactile objects like stress balls or soft fabrics.
- Engaging in art therapy using materials such as clay or sand.
- Playing soothing music or using visual aids like bubble tubes to create a calming atmosphere.
How do I handle meltdowns during an autism-friendly Christmas gathering?
Meltdowns are common when individuals feel overwhelmed. To manage meltdowns effectively:
- Identify early signs of distress and intervene promptly by offering comfort or removing triggers.
- Create a quiet space where they can retreat if needed.
- Practice deep breathing exercises together to promote relaxation.
How can I educate other family members about autism during our family Christmas gathering?
To educate family members about autism:
- Share informative articles or videos that explain the characteristics and challenges faced by autistic people.
- Encourage open conversations, allowing them to ask questions and building understanding.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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