Ten Tips for an Autism Friendly Christmas
Christmas can be a magical time filled with decorations, treats, presents, twinkling lights, and excitement. It can also be a stressful time for autistic people because of schedule changes, visitors, sensory overload and unpredictability.
Here are a ten tips to help make this holiday season an autism friendly one.
- Maintain routines for predictability. Try to stick with routines like bedtime, bath time and meals. If that’s impossible, try to keep one routine in place so that a person has something they can count on being the same. Kids like predictability. If there will be a change in routine, let your child know ahead of time on the visual schedule.
- Pick the right time to do activities. 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 and make a reservation to avoid wait times. A Sunday may be quieter than a Saturday; mornings are usually better at most places.
- Allot time quiet periods. There are a lot more sensory overloading experiences happening at this time of the year so allow for periods of rest and quiet. Taking a break from tech devices can also reduce stimulation.
- Let visitors know your expectations. Let potential visitors know that unannounced visits are stressful. Ask that they call ahead and come at times that work for your family. Limit how long they stay ahead of time. (i.e. – We’d love to see you for an hour, but then Michael has to go for a nap or we’ll be going out at this time.)
- Respect special/restricted diets. If a person follows a special diet, let everyone know and ask them not to offer food. Well-meaning people think a child is missing out if they don’t try all the Christmas treats. Parents know the consequences of dietary changes. Having a child that is sick or won’t sleep due to what they ate is no fun. This may also not be an ideal time to try new foods with all that is going on.
- Exercise and try to get outdoors for fresh air. Exercise and movement can help an autistic person self-regulate and manage stress and anxiety. Going for a walk to the corner store for an item, riding an exercise bike or doing a few yoga poses can help with anxiety management and support a better night’s sleep. If you are not sure what activities to do outdoors, CBC Parents has compiled a list of 50 things.
- Visiting family and friends. When out visiting, limit the length of the visit, put it on the visual schedule, and make sure children bring a few things that they find comforting. Ask the hostess where there is a quiet space available if a child needs it.
- Opening presents can be challenging. Some autistic children find presents overwhelming. Tearing off wrapping paper can be a challenge for those with fine motor issues. For children with fine motor issues, consider putting things in gift bags with loose tissue on top. Some children might feel anxious about not knowing what’s inside so 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 for years when our children were younger.
- Plan for sensory challenging moments. Sometimes it may be impossible to have a sensory friendly environment at a family gathering or outing. Consider bringing noise cancelling headphones, fidget toys for waiting times or to use for calming, and allocate quiet spaces ahead of time if you are able to.
- Create your own family traditions. Create your own family traditions that work and are meaningful. This could be things like a board games night, watching a special holiday film together, tracking Santa’s flight around the world, or baking or cooking a favorite dish.
Keep an open mind about the holidays. Even with careful preparation, things may not go according to plan. You may have to abandon one activity for another. Focus on supporting happiness and well-being for an autistic person no matter what that looks like. It has taken me years to create a Christmas that works for my family, and it has evolved now that my children are both adults. We stick to the plans that work and if people can’t accommodate us, then we opt out.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all! All the best for 2023!
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