Last updateMon, 28 Jan 2013 9pm

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Family Life

Christmas and the Autism Spectrum

With just a few days left until Christmas 2012 is upon us, many families will be either completely prepared for the big event whilst others won’t even have given it or a thought. Then there are those who don’t dare think about it because for them Christmas is a nightmare and they wish it would all go away.

Christmas is a big occasion where pressure builds on all of us to appear happy, care free and generous to a fault. In these hard times of austerity, many families have to cut back drastically on the festivities. For families living with autism spectrum conditions Christmas can be one of the most difficult times of the year.

FATHER CHRISTMAS IN YOUR TOWN visits at the local shopping centre or the village hall may be your idea of festive bliss (and Granny loves the annual photograph of the kids on Santa’s lap) but actually your youngster could be terrified! Whilst most children love the ‘idea’ of meeting a big fat man with long white beard, robed in red and white there are also many who find that prospect daunting and potentially unsafe. For children who are/may be on the autism spectrum this is perfectly ‘normal’.

Our advice is to follow the child – if they don’t want to, don’t make them! Watching from a safe distance holding a trusted hand is always better!

FATHER CHRISTMAS at home generally lands on our roof and slips down the chimney with a sack of presents very quietly in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep! Not only that but if there is no fireplace, he has a key and can let himself in! Some youngsters find this prospect very scary and don’t sleep as a result! Others sit up all night and wait and watch out of the window. I have known some children literally sit up until daybreak waiting, they can be very determined! Respect your child’s comfort area and try and keep within it, it makes for a far happier Christmas.

SHOPPING TRIPS, these can be a nightmare for any parent of any child! For children on the autism spectrum and also adults, shopping trips can only be likened to hell on a pavement! Many on the autism spectrum and with other invisible differences suffer many sensory challenges throughout their life. Bright lights can be attractive to some but to others fairy lights are much more comfortable. Busy areas crammed with people, noise and bumping into others can send many into meltdown instantly. Where do you find a quiet area to calm down in the middle of a shopping precinct?

SCHOOL at Christmas - Carol concerts, nativity plays and all things associated with school can be very challenging for a youngster on the autism spectrum. Many don’t like dressing up in any form of costume least of all perform in front of staff, pupils and parents! Others will adore the limelight and win primary school Oscars for their performances. Either extreme is possible! Please remember everyone on the spectrum is different, completely unique.

DECORATIONS Christmas Trees, decorations and Advent Calendars! Many on the autism spectrum adore the twinkles, sparkles and effects that decorations can give to their often hyper/hypo sensitivities. The spinning of a bauble on the Christmas tree can give some children hours of entertainment as they watch the light reflect as it moves. Others will want to juggle with them, throw them or even worse break them – all perfectly ‘normal’ for someone on the spectrum. Don’t be surprised if on December 1st all 25chocolates have been eaten from the advent calendar! Some of us just can’t help ourselves and have a huge difficulty resisting any form of temptation!

‘You must be good all year otherwise Father Christmas won’t come’ is a terrifying mantra for any youngster least of all one on the autism spectrum! Many are literal thinkers and genuinely believe that one slight mistake all year will be all it takes to stop Christmas in its tracks. Many will dwell on that so please don’t make too many threats!

CHRISTMAS FOOD - Christmas Lunch, Turkey, Cranberry with Mince pies and Xmas pud to follow! Yes the traditional feast we all look forward to? Well maybe not! Pizza, burgers or perhaps mashed potato with a pile of cheddar cheese on top would be a feast for many children and youngsters (perhaps adults too) on the autism spectrum. In fact whatever they love all year round will be just as delicious on Christmas Day …and Boxing Day…and New Year! Some will devour everything in front of them, others will appear to be overly fussy, ungrateful and difficult as they struggle to explain their hatred of ‘hot food’, ‘green food’ or perhaps anything that is served up on a plate! Finger foods go down equally as well with many! Christmas is a time for strong flavours and smells that may present a few problems for many with sensory differences. Crackers that explode can and often does send children into a state of anxiety, specifically the ones who hate fireworks!

CHRISTMAS – PRESENTS! This can be a very traumatic time for both parents and children alike! Perhaps you and yours are devoid of sleep entirely! It takes a lot of patience looking up at the sky for hours! The waiting, yearning and wondering has by now been going on for quite a while. For many the anti climax of waking up and finding their presents is just one step too far. All of a sudden it becomes very overwhelming, embarrassing and a bit too much, often ending in meltdown and tears. Parents may feel desperately sad that all their efforts have seemingly gone to waste, for their children it’s just too much too soon, meltdown! Take Christmas morning gently if you possibly can. Maybe stagger some of the presents throughout the day so it is not too overwhelming. Father Christmas has been known to drop a few pressies by the garage sometimes; it’s lovely to go on a treasure hunt to make sure he hasn’t left anything behind.

CHRISTMAS GUESTS Relatives, friends and a houseful of guests don’t always sit well with people/children on the autism spectrum. Many prefer the peace and tranquillity of their own homes devoid of other people! Crackers, party poppers and all things festive often send many into meltdown and their bedrooms, doors firmly closed! Always ensure that there is a quiet place to go to in those times of overwhelm and allow for time to chill down. Routine’s that are upset often cause multiple problems so please take a minute to respect your nearest and dearest. Your son or daughter may not take kindly to be moved our of their beloved bed to make way for Grandma who is staying for a week!!!

THE OFFICE PARTY – or more realistically for some, the office headache! Social events however rare at work can prove extremely difficult for many. Being in the company of people they work with can make for difficult communication. Often people on the spectrum cannot make the switch from business to social so may feel awkward or left out, context is often compromised. Others may look forward to the party all year as it could be their only invited social event where they feel ‘wanted’. Some may be inappropriate or appear rude as they struggle to socialise in a way that is deemed acceptable by others. Some may decline the event all together and be known for ‘never turning up’ and ‘anti social’. Please be aware that for some attending the office party it really is a huge deal and whilst it may be fun and celebrations for you, for them it is misery.

BOXING DAY – not the day for boxing gloves! However the anti climax and the come down from the big day can often be exhausting for those on the autism spectrum. Boxing day is traditionally the day for riding that new bike, taking a walk wearing your new coat or perhaps trying out the sleigh as it’s snowing!! Outdoor activities are great after a day of feasting and stress. Fresh air and a change of atmosphere will help provided it is planned, timetabled and explained. A walk for many is a marathon however a half hour trot around the park may be quite acceptable, especially is there is a favourite treat to come back to!

NEW YEAR – back to reality! But not before a few fireworks, late nights, more chocolate to eat and excitement! Please remember not everyone enjoys fireworks, late nights or excitement, for many an early night on New Year’s Eve is far preferable to singing in the New Year with others! . For many on the autism spectrum these occasions can be overwhelming and frightening, for others they are objects of great mystery that require handling!! OOOops! Please be mindful that the festivities are nearly over, normal life and school returns, all of a sudden new fears are awoken and the challenge of a new year starts again!

To get the best of out of your Christmas our advice is to carefully plan your festive time, grab a piece of paper and decorate it with a timetable of events planned, even down to who is coming on what day, for how long and with whom. Keep changes to routine down to a minimum and try not to make too many rash promises that you may not always be able to fulfil! Explain and talk about the holiday period with your family, warn them of the ‘busy’ times and reassure them that there will be plenty of quiet times too!

Never force any changes or choices on someone on the autism spectrum. If they really won’t eat turkey preferring Pepperoni Pizza, so be it! Don’t fight it! If they wish to have tinsel strung all over their door and fairy lights around their bed, what’s the harm (provided you switch them off of course when not used!). Christmas trees don’t always have to be erected, decorations don’t’ have to be hung. No one has a ‘duty’ to do anything except have a good time in an environment that feels comfortable!

Enjoy a very happy and peaceful Christmas!