Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas This Year! - Autism Awareness
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Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas This Year!

The Christmas season is upon us and with that comes expectations and busyness that many autistic people find anxiety provoking. The holidays mean changes in the schedule, visitors, crowds, line-ups, noise, and socializing. Meeting family demands can be especially nerve-wracking, particularly if you want to break with time-honoured traditions that just don’t work for an autistic person.

Here are a few ideas for making the holidays happy and a little less stressful.

  1. Maintain routines. Try to stick with routines like bedtime, bath time and meals. If that’s impossible to do some days, put any changes on the visual schedule ahead of time so that there are no surprises . Kids like predictability and knowing what is going to happen.
  2. Create a safe zone for down time. Have a quiet place for children to go both in their own home and in other people’s homes to reduce sensory overload. Ask your host ahead of time if there is an area your child can go to if they need some down time away from the group.

  3. Pick the right time for outings. With everyone on Christmas break, most attractions will be busier. Call ahead and ask when the less busy times are. Matinees are better than evening shows. If eating out, get there by 5 pm or after 7 pm. A Sunday may be quieter than a Saturday; mornings are usually better at most places.
  4. Lessen the surprise of Christmas presents. Some autistic children find presents overwhelming. Tearing off wrapping paper can be a challenge for those with fine motor issues. Some children might feel anxious not knowing what’s inside. For those with fine motor issues, consider putting things in gift bags with loose tissue on top. Put a picture of what’s inside the box on the outside. Not everything has to opened in one day – stretch the gift opening over the course of a week. We had to do this when my children were younger.
  5. Create your own holiday traditions that are meaningful to your child and incorporate their interests. Find ways in which they can contribute to holiday activities. Maybe they like to put sprinkles on cookies, stamps on Christmas card envelopes, hang decorations, make cards by hand, or create e-cards on the internet. Every year, my daughter and I sponsor a cat at a local cat charity. Together, we try to find out which cat needs the most support. We also do some baking for our local homeless shelter.

  6. Find an alternative to Santa. My children never believed in Santa Claus or connected to this concept. To make things magical for my daughter, I signed all of her gift tags from a different cat from our local cat charity or from friends’ cats. I still do this for her at age 22, and she delights in seeing which cat picked out her gifts.
  7. Reduce sensory overload. Clear up boxes and wrapping paper as you go to keep the chaos to a minimum. Wear noise cancelling headphones at gatherings and events. Limit the amount of outings per day. Attend sensory friendly screenings and performances.
  8. Home visits. Limit the amount of visitors to the house. Large groups of guests can be challenging for an autistic person to deal with; so can an invasion of their space. Request that people not drop by without giving notice. This is a rule in our house that we insist people follow. Limit the length of a visit to something manageable. Every family will differ.
  9. Introduce new foods or ones that aren’t usually consumed with caution. Some children have food sensitivities and can’t tolerate traditional Christmas foods like shortbread, chocolate and other delights. They may be interested in trying them, but check with the parents first to see if they can handle certain foods. The joy in the moment is never worth the aftermath of an upset stomach or GI system later.
  10. Schedule some respite time for yourself. Parents needs a break too so don’t forget about your own needs. Finding people to babysit over the holidays can be trying, but with many university students home for the holidays, you may be able to enlist some help. Take in a movie, go for a walk and look at the Christmas lights – whatever lifts your spirits.

COVID Christmas

COVID is still with us this Christmas season and new variants are emerging. Before heading out to any public place, check what the protocols are. There may be capacity limits, advanced ticket purchase required, mandatory masking and more. If mask wearing is challenging, try outdoor activities like tobogganing or going for a drive to look at the Christmas lights.

Even with vaccinations, many people are still immunocompromised and have to limit their contacts. Last year, I wrote an article on an at-home Christmas season due to COVID, which gives suggestions on celebrating the season at home.

Remember: Don’t worry about everyone else’s holiday expectations – create your own traditions that work for you.

Every family has its own rhythm and pace. Do what works for your family – think about maintaining predictability through routines and familiar toys, places, and people. Plan for transitions and have quiet periods and down time throughout the day.

Merry Christmas to everyone and I wish you all the best of the holiday season!

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