The weather’s getting colder, the nights are getting longer and Pound Land has replaced its cheap Halloween decorations with Santa hats. Christmas is coming. While we’re all looking forward to that one month of the year when it’s acceptable to consume your body weight in cheese and wine, Christmas can be a stressful time for everyone. Sorting out the decorations, buying gifts, preparing for the onslaught of friends, family and distant relations coming to visit and making sure they don’t argue… Well, it’s not easy. Add to that the stress of having autism: confusing social rituals, last minute changes to routines, Christmas lights and carol singers causing sensory overload, and Christmas can be down right difficult. But it doesn’t have to be.
The following is aimed at the friends, spouses, parents and carers of anyone on the autism spectrum. Here’s ten ways you can have an autism friendly Christmas:
1) Get the shopping done early
If you’re taking an autistic child/adult with you during Christmas shopping, make sure you do it early and avoid peak times (such as Saturday afternoons) when you know the shopping centre will be crowded. Personally, I started shopping for Christmas presents at the end of October and I’m hoping to get it all done by December 1st. Large, echoey, brightly lit shopping centres are an unpleasant environment for someone with autism because of our sensory issues. Add a crowd of manic, last minute Christmas shoppers to the equation, and just standing in a shopping centre is likely to send any autistic person straight into meltdown. Avoid this stress by making sure your loved one with autism doesn’t have to go shopping at peak times during December.
2) Help them decide who to buy for
People with autism often get confused about the roles others have in their lives. Is this person a friend or an acquaintance? If I can hug Mummy, then why can’t I hug my social worker? Autism Specialists combat this by teaching them to colour code their friends. They’re given a keyring containing lots of different colours (blue for close friends, orange for acquaintances, pink for family members etc), every time they meet someone new, the autistic person decides where this person fits into their lives by assigning them a colour from the keyring. You can use this method to help an autistic adult decide who to buy presents and cards for. Ask them to write a list of everyone they know, colour code each name based on that persons role in their life, then use the colour to help them decide how much money they should spend on a card/gift for that person. (For example: Millie is blue, which means she’s a close friend, so you spend £20. Tom is orange, meaning he’s an acquaintance so you don’t need to buy him anything). While you might think it’s obvious who you should and shouldn’t buy gifts for, to a person with autism it can be very confusing.
3) Try not to over decorate
Any changes to a well-known environment will cause stress for someone with autism. During Christmas our environment changes a lot. Trees invade the living room, cards clutter every surface and the street is suddenly filled with bright flashing lights, garish fake Santa’s and loud carol singing- all of which could send an autistic person into sensory overload. If a person with autism lives in your house, try not to over decorate. Avoid anything that has bright lights, flashes or makes noise. If possible, allow them to pick out the Christmas decorations with you so they’re familiar with the changes that will be made to their home. If you’re taking an autistic child/adult to an area you know will contain flashing lights and Carol singing, bring sunglasses and ear defenders for them to wear when the stimulus gets too much. People with autism see and hear the world differently. Sights, sounds and smells that you find pleasant could have catastrophic consequences for us.
4) Avoid pressuring them to socialise
Christmas time involves a great deal of socialising. We meet up and exchange gifts with family and friends who we might not have seen all year, and while that’s one of the things I love about Christmas, this constant pressure to socialise can be extremely difficult for someone with autism. Remember that first and foremost, autism is a social awareness and communication disability. We’re just not able to spend all day effortlessly chatting to a room full of strangers. If you live with someone with autism, make sure you give them plenty of warning before someone comes over to visit during the Christmas season. Remind them they can come down and talk if they want to, but if your autistic child/sibling/partner/friend would rather stay upstairs in their pyjamas that’s fine too. Please be patient. We don’t require time alone because we’re lazy or selfish; we require it because we’re overwhelmed and exhausted.
5) Make sure there is always a sensory safe zone present
A sensory safe zone is a small, quiet room that contains low lighting, and no unpleasant smells/textures. This is somewhere an autistic person can go to calm down for a few minutes when they find their sensory/social environment overwhelming. Unless they are a danger to themselves, they should be left alone while using the safe zone. If you’re taking a child or adult with autism to a Christmas party visit the host beforehand and kindly ask that they provide a sensory safe zone for them to use when they start feeling overwhelmed during the party. Make sure the autistic person you’re bringing knows where the safe zone is and can use it at any time. If they use the safe zone for regular breaks, this should allow them to remain at the party for longer without going into melt down or sensory overload.
6) Give plenty of warning when routines are going to be changed
Christmas time involves lots of changes to routines. We all take time off work, do things we wouldn’t normally do and see people we wouldn’t normally see. As people with autism have a pathological need for routine and repetition, these changes can be difficult to deal with. The best thing you can do for us is give plenty of warning. Don’t suddenly say ‘tonight we’re going for mulled wine and mince pies at Sarah’s’ a couple of hours before you’re due to set off. For all you know, a person with autism has meticulously planned how they’re going to be spending their evening, and sudden changes to that plan could cause a meltdown. When there’s going to be a change in their routine, let them know several weeks in advance and keep giving gentle reminders until that change occurs. For someone with autism, this reduces anxiety by giving us time to process information and removing fear of the unknown. (A quicker alternative could be creating a timetable of all the social events you’ll be attending during the Christmas period and putting it somewhere everyone can see).
7) Explain what will happen on Christmas before the big day
This shouldn’t need much elaborating. Christmas day is probably the biggest change in our daily routine, and you can reduce the anxiety this will cause for a person with autism simply by explaining what will happen on the 25th a couple of weeks before. If the autistic person you’re living with requires a higher level of support, you can use picture diaries to reduce their fear of the unknown (for example: a photo of a present to show when they’ll be opening presents and a photo of a turkey to show when they’ll be eating Christmas dinner).
8) Allow them some time immersed in their special interest
From shoe laces, to elephants to the Tudor Dynasty, everyone with autism has at least one special interest. If you know an autistic person, you’ll know what their special interest is (in fact you probably can’t get them to stop talking about it). Our special interest is what keeps us passionate about life, but it can also provide an opportunity to relax and unwind. Christmas is a tiring time for everyone thanks to the cold weather, busy social calendar and constant overeating, but it can be exhausting for people with autism. If you’re spending Christmas time with someone on the spectrum, make sure you allow them a couple of hours each day to immerse themselves in their special interest, away from any social and sensory pressures. This will allow them to recuperate, meaning they’re better able to deal with the social and sensory aspects of Christmas.
9) Include some of their non-traditional favourites with the festive food
Many autistic people have restrictive diets. There’s a variety of reasons for this, such as sensory issues making strong tasting food too painful to eat or a pathological fear of the unknown preventing us from trying new things. While associated with childhood, for people with autism these issues can last well into adulthood. Just remember that our refusal to try your Brussels sprouts isn’t about being picky or grossed out by vegetables- it’s about fear. I know traditional roast dinners are what people look forward to at Christmas, but there’s really no point in cooking an elaborate roast turkey with all the trimmings if your autistic child/friend/spouse comes over for dinner and refuses to eat a bite. Make sure you include some of their favourite foods in the Christmas dinner regardless of how un festive it may feel. If an autistic person is more comfortable eating curry or chicken and chips on the 25th of December, then that’s what they’ll eat.
10) Remember that Christmas is supposed to be fun
The last point on this list is probably the most important one. Christmas time is supposed to be fun, and in the stress of trying to plan the perfect, traditional, family Christmas we often forget that. If you’re spending Christmas with someone with autism, don’t put too much pressure on them to do typical Christmassy activities. Carol singing might hurt their ears, the social aspects of the Christmas party could be too daunting and while you might enjoy watching The Snowman, they might think it’s boring. Instead of forcing festive joy down the throat of someone with autism, allow them to spend at least a portion of the day doing something they find fun, regardless of how untraditional that may be.