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Embracing Christmas with a child with ASD

As Christmas comes around once again, things can get pretty hectic for any parent. But the break in routines this time of year are even more difficult if you have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and especially when coming on top of months of uncertainty and the anxiety caused by Covid-19  .

Christmas, lights, smells and the lack of routine can make the holidays a challenging time for children with ASD and they can be left feeling unsettled. It will never be easy but with a few techniques and enough preparation, you can enjoy Christmas with your family.

We talked to some parents of children with ASD to get some tried and tested tips to embrace Christmas this year:

Use Advent Calendars for encouragement

The change in routine can be tricky and it’s sometimes difficult to get your child up and off to school when they know it’s going to be another challenging day.

Some parents use an advent calendar as encouragement; – the child can only open the door when they’re ready to leave in the morning. Advent calendars are also great for channelling children’s excitement as they count down the days to Christmas.

“Lego advent calendars are a hit – good motivation if they can only open after getting dressed in the morning.”

Prepare and plan for Christmas outings

Consider using a visual calendar to map out the one-off events, trips and family visits (or zoom parties!) in the festive season so the children can see what is coming up

Talking through the day beforehand can help too – where you will be going, what you will be doing – and if you can, show them photos as well. It helps to have a plan B (and C!) in case they have trouble coping with the new environment.

Get them involved

“We found putting (our child) in charge of where some decorations and all Christmas cards go has really helped.”

Putting your child in charge of something that seems important can help by making them feel really involved in the preparations. Giving them something to do can reduce their stress and help them feel valued and in control.

Try to also introduce changes into their environment gradually, starting with the Christmas lights for (supervised) sensory play.

When it comes to Christmas day, look for games your child can join in with, if they want to. Open-ended games where there is no pressure to win, and no right or wrong answers, are a good way to go as they are ‘just for fun’.

“Communication can sometimes be a challenge between a child with ASD and the rest of the world. Allowing them the freedom to make their own stories and to explore their imagination will help the child bring others into how they see the world.“

Set up a quiet area at family gatherings

“Having a planned space allocated to him that he can go to for ‘time out’ and having a screen on standby to help him de-stress.”

Social gatherings are noisy and can result in sensory overload. Talk to family members and friends ahead of time to discuss your child’s specific needs, and gently but firmly tell them what your plans are.

Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone. Ask for their support if you need it – they will be willing to help!

Being at home can make life easier because your child can escape to their room, but when you visit friends and family it might help to plan a quiet area for your child to use instead.

“I go armed with a tablet and headphones, because she loves listening to music to distract herself.”

If you are able to visit family or friends, take along their favourite distraction toys, whether that’s a tablet and headphones, or perhaps something sensory so they can have a break when needed without disrupting the whole plan.

Use gift giving as a teaching opportunity

A lot of us, when we receive a gift we don’t want, will put on a smile and say thank you anyway.

This social aspect of gift giving can be very hard for children with ASD; they can be very vocal when they don’t like their gift, or think someone else’s is better than theirs. Try using role play to practise giving and receiving presents gracefully to prepare for this.

Helping and encouraging your child to give gifts also provides an excellent opportunity to work on social skills. For example, thinking of other people’s needs and interests, and being kind and helpful.

“I support my daughter to make gifts for her family and friends. She also looks forward to actually giving out the presents as well.”

Let them eat nuggets!

“I let my daughter have chicken nuggets for her Christmas dinner.”

Christmas day dinner is another minefield if your child is a selective eater or has food intolerances.

Be prepared to plan around what they can and can’t eat, possibly cooking them a separate meal, even if it’s chicken nuggets! The most important thing is that they enjoy it too.

Rework Father Christmas

Some aspects of the Father Christmas tale – like a bearded man climbing down the chimney in the middle of the night – might be confusing or even scary if taken literally.

When you read Christmas stories before bed, consider tweaking the story slightly – so your child can still enjoy the magic of Santa in their own way.

Forget surprises

Some children with ASD are unnerved by surprises of any kind, and that includes presents.

If you know that yours is likely to spend the build up to Christmas worrying about whether they will or won’t get what they really want, then it’s worth doing their shopping well in advance and just letting them know it’s fine.

And if you can’t get what they want, it gives you time to persuade them that an alternative is acceptable. But be prepared for your carefully chosen gifts to go down like a lead balloon!

Family and friends may also need some guidance on what presents to give your child,

“A few years ago my friend’s son (who also has ASD) asked his uncle for an old Guinness book of records. My friend had to explain that it would need to be that one, and that one only – any other Guinness book of record would not be right.”

And breathe…

Staying relaxed and low-key is one of the best things you can do to keep your child’s behavior in line and help them manage with all of the strange events and routines during the festive season.

Doing your best to save the tantrum (yours!) for when they have gone to bed can help everyone be a little calmer this Christmas.

By Anna Taylor and Amanda Gummer