Dear parents of autistic children at Christmas, from an autistic adult
Following the success of the original Dear parents blog post I wanted to do one geared around Christmas. A magical time of the year, but for autistic people and their families, it can be a tough time.
As always, the below is based on my own experience as an autistic adult and my little brother. Autism is a spectrum. Not everything will apply to your situation but hopefully some of it can at least guide or be thought provoking.
1. Autistic today, autistic tomorrow
I am autistic today, I am autistic on my birthday, I am autistic on Christmas day and new years eve. I love Christmas. But if you take away the expectation to enjoy it and think about what it really is for a minute. It is hyped up and intense, it is bright, loud and busy. It’s a time of year that things are different, tables are moved, decorations changed, and familiarity gone. Really, when you take the magic and expectation out of Christmas, it’s kind of an autistic person’s worst nightmare. I love Christmas, but I can’t remove autism for the day. The day comes with its challenges.
2. Pretty lights
One of my favourite parts of Christmas is all the lights. However, it can become too much. A few things that help me:
– A lot of sets of lights have brightness controls, if yours have this, consider turning the setting down a touch or two.
– I struggle with flashing lights. Most Christmas lights have a fade in option, or a flickering setting. Flickering lights are my favourite. They are beautiful too watch but not too intense.
Check in with the autistic person in your life to see how they prefer lights. If they can’t cope with lights at all, perhaps consider only having them at a distance (on the ceiling) or using other ways to make the home a Christmas celebration that everyone is comfortable with.
Meltdowns won’t stop because it’s Christmas day. In fact, if you consider point 1, they are far more likely on Christmas day. Please don’t expect your autistic loved one to be able to control their autistic traits on Christmas Day anymore than any other day. I know it’s hard, if you are a parent with other children it’s even harder. Deal with the meltdown like you would any other day. See them through it, guide them to peace, and forget it. Don’t let a meltdown ruin the day for you or for the autistic person. Put things into place to prepare for one. Have headphones handy, a quiet safe space ready to retreat to. Not only will those reduce the likelihood of a meltdown, but they are there should one occur
– Bonus point: If other family members/friends have a problem with a meltdown on Christmas Day, that says far more about them than you/your autistic loved one.
4. Christmas dinner
People go mad about food on Christmas Day. But it doesn’t remove the autistic person’s eating habits. Eating is a huge deal to us. If they want plain pasta instead of a Christmas dinner, so what? If that means they can cope with the day then so be it. Don’t forget your ideas of a perfect Christmas meal, and theirs, are likely very different.
Not only is the food different but often the way in which we eat is different. I know for our family there are additional people at the table and the table is moved to the lounge. These are huge shifts in what I am used to. However, I know I could tell my family I want to eat on the sofa, and they’d be fine with that. Just because it is Christmas day does not mean we should be pushed into uncomfortable situations. Discuss with your autistic loved one where they want to sit and how they want to approach the dinner. Do they want the same food? Do they need it separated out on different plates? Do they want to sit in a certain seat? I always sit on the edge as it makes me fell less enclosed.
Autistic people need a plan. We need to know what is coming our way. Christmas Day is no different. Given all the changes, it is a crucial day for us to know what’s going to happen. It will reduce the chance of meltdowns and make the day far more enjoyable for the autistic person and their family if we have a plan. This can be around things like when dinner will be, where we will be sitting, what family is visiting, if we are visiting family at any point, and what is in place to support us (headphones, room etc). If you are visiting family, you could check with the hosts if there is somewhere quiet for the autistic person to go and recoup.
Make sure the talk of a plan is alongside a soft talk of it isn’t set in stone. Don’t use absolute terms. ‘We are hoping grandma and grandad will be coming over in the afternoon’, is better than ‘Grandma and Grandad will be here at 1.’
Everybody loves presents right!? Hmm, not so much. They can cause me a lot of problems. The main one is how they are opened and given. I can’t open presents while being watched, it’s a performance I didn’t sign up for. Please think about this when arranging how presents are opened and given. Your autistic loved one may prefer to take a more hidden back seat approach to present giving/receiving.
Another key point on presents – I am 28 years old. I will get some Harry Potter stuff for Christmas, because it’s my special interest. I could get every gift as Harry and be so happy with it. Please don’t judge our gifts. Whether stim toys or special interest gifts, we deserve to receive what makes us happy, free of judgement and remarks.
7. Joining in
If your family is anything like mine, you play games at Christmas. We love a good family ‘board’ game. But not all games are accessible to everyone. If we play charades then I will guess the answers, and if correct will nominate someone to perform the next in my place. It means I can still join in. It would be far easier for my family to say, ‘well you can’t perform so you can’t play.’ Break down the games and try to get around the bits someone can’t join in with. My little brother has dyslexia, and this also needs some creative ways to make sure he can join in. There is always a way to make it possible, change the rules slightly, have them team up with someone. If someone wants to join in a game or activity, something like autism or dyslexia shouldn’t stop them.
8. Time outs
As alluded to in the meltdown point, having set places to have breaks and headphones handy is a must on Christmas day. A couple of years ago I spent some time in my bedroom crying to myself because I was so overwhelmed. Christmas Day is a lot. It’s a lot for neurotypicals (not autistic). So, for an autistic person it is a mountain of a day. Try to ensure there are time outs. Perhaps go for a walk or take your autistic child to their bedroom and ask them to go through their favourite gift with you. Little breaks from the bustle of the main room will make for a smoother day for everyone.
(On a side note they may wish to spend the majority of the day alone in their room. Again, don’t place your own ideas of a perfect Christmas on them. They may love just occasionally coming into the mayhem and then retreating to safety).
9. Everyone’s Christmas
This is probably the most important point and covers everything. It is everyone’s Christmas. It is every siblings Christmas. It is any parent/guardians Christmas. It is the autistic persons Christmas. Work together to make sure every single person has a brilliant day. It doesn’t matter if things have to be done a little differently to make that happen.
Have a great Christmas everyone!
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