The Christmas season is upon us! Everywhere you turn there are lights, decorations on the shelves, Cliff Richard crooning ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ in every shop you go to – and its only November.
Whilst for many children and adults, Christmas is a hugely exciting and magical time. The thought of decorating the tree and eagerly awaiting Father Christmas to deliver that ever allusive ‘Fingerling’, (sorry, that sounded a bit crude………..) different food, visiting family and friends – all these things make Christmas a very special time.
However, for many children with ASD Christmas brings many anxieties and many hurdles to overcome. Some parents dread this holiday, simply because it seems an endless slog of placating your child, preparing in advance, maintaining routines and managing fallouts – fallouts where your child is somewhat out of sorts, to the extremes of daily multiple meltdowns and refusal to sleep.(this is us – 2.00am wake up call anyone??)
Quite frankly, it can be exhausting and far beyond the realms of magical.
So why is it that many children on the Autistic Spectrum find Christmas such a fretful time?
The change in routine
Obviously, Christmas brings a complete overhaul of daily activities and schedules which give comfort and stability to those on the spectrum. The school holidays can wipe away the routines of the day leaving the child feeling anxious, uncertain and fretful about what is to come. Activities a family may normally do are replaced with ad hoc visiting, supermarket trips, varied meal times etc. All of which are hard for a child on the spectrum to deal with.
The relentless sensory overload and ASD
There’s nothing quite like a decorated tree, streets, shops to get you into the Xmas mood. All those flashing lights, tinsel, baubles and ‘Ho Ho Ho-ing’ Santa’s at every turn is just part of the festive season, yes?
Not for a child on the spectrum. A common diagnosis along with ASD is Sensory Processing Disorder. This is a condition where the brain struggles with receiving and responding to sensory information. A sound, which I would find tolerable, such as a car alarm, could seem like a pneumatic drill going on if their ear. Even if a person on the spectrum hasn’t been diagnosed with this, they could have many sensory struggles.
So imagine a child on the spectrum, coming home to find the living room they knew and felt comforted by for most of the year, has been turned into Santa’s Grotto? The tree lights don’t stop flashing, the relentless chiming of ‘Jingle Bells’ coming from freaky looking Santa on the shelf, the tinsel resembles barbed wire and the Christmas Tree feels like you are touching nettles. The change is enough to send your child into overload, but add to that, this onslaught of the senses, which is relentless can be a traumatic experience for anyone on the spectrum.
For some children on the spectrum, gift receiving is quite a difficult time. A lot of ASD hate the feel and noise of the wrapping paper, the unexpected ‘surprise’ awaiting them underneath and the social pressure to say please and thank you. This is where my household has its issues – Monty has a very fixed idea of what he likes, he doesn’t like surprises, and finds it very difficult to sit and open presents with an audience. He has been known to go elsewhere and open presents, which is fine.
Just that really – at Christmas most of us relish the excuse to eat different food, and a lot of it. This change could send the child into a tailspin simply because they don’t feel comfortable deviating from the ‘normal’ day to day meal routines. These routines gives our children certainty, structure in a world they find very confusing.
Visitors and Visiting
Christmas is a time for family get-togethers, but it can be so stressful on a person with ASD. Knowing they are visiting somewhere different, with no clue what awaits them in terms of their surroundings, the people, the food, the social expecations. People visiting your home can also spark anxieties in a person with ASD.
The NAS has some good strategies for parents to manage these anxieties and can be found here.
My advice? Keep things simple, prepare your child as much as you can, and try and have put some structure in place in the holidays.
Finally, don’t put too much pressure on yourselves. If you know your child will detest a Santa’s Grotto – don’t take them, even if you feel you want to because other children are. It’s incredibly hard, because as parents we want to make the festive season as magical as we can for our children, so they look back on it fondly. But my children don’t need the bloody Elf on a Shelf (who does actually???!!) to make Christmas memorable or magical. The memories I have of Christmas as a child extend far beyond the presents – I didn’t have the Elf on a Shelf, a personalized stocking, a Christmas Eve box, a full 3 course Christmas lunch, elaborately wrapped presents, and I loved my childhood Christmas’s. Be kind to yourselves.
Finally, I just wanted to share with you this video from the NAS. This was part of a campaign called TMI (Too much Information) whereby they release this video. The purpose of the video was to give you an idea of how an Autistic person, may experience something simple, as a shopping centre. Please give it a watch.
Imagine this scenario, but it’s Christmas– the shopping centre is crowded, lights everywhere, music playing. It’s different to look at. For an Autistic person, its hell and a lot of the time they are in pain. They can’t tell you they are feeling overwhelmed, frightened and wanting to run away. The result? They have a meltdown as it’s the only way they can communicate their distress.
So, if you are out shopping and witness anyone kicking out, screaming and looking scared – be kind. Don’t judge the parents, or look on with disapproval, ask if you can help. You never know, this person may be on the spectrum and experiencing a sensory overload you will never understand.