Autism at Christmas: How to prepare a child on the autistic spectrum for the festive season

Christmas is an exciting time of year for most families.

But for those with a child who has a condition on the autistic spectrum, the change in routine, big events and large crowds can make it feel stressful and overwhelming instead.

There are still many ways parents can plan for Christmas and make the holidays fun for everyone – it just requires a little more thought and forward planning.

If you have a child who has autism, these tips can help you and your family to make the holidays as happy and hassle-free as possible.

How to prepare for Christmas with a child on the autistic spectrum

Christmas brings about a lot of change to our normal routine, but there are ways to explain what that will mean for your child.

Make a Christmas timetable


The National Autistic Society (NAS) recommends using a calendar or visual timetable to detail what will be happening over Christmas. You can use this to prepare your child for certain events and special days when things will be happening outside the normal routine.

Talk to your child about Christmas in advance, and give them lots of information about the changes they’ll see. It can also help to prepare for specific events – for example, if you’re going to see Father Christmas, show them a photo of a man dressed as Father Christmas so they know what to expect.

Help them visualise the day beforehand


Another idea that some parents find useful is to make a booklet with pictures of Christmas trees, decorations and Christmas food to help your child visualise what might happen on the day. However, it’s best to take care as if your child is very literal, as they may become anxious if your own Christmas does not look exactly like it does in the photographs.

If your child is worried about Christmas, you can help them share their concerns by using a worry toy or writing down their feelings in a worry book, which you can purchase from the National Autistic Society online shop.

Make a schedule for the day


As well as a schedule for the big day itself, it can help to incorporate a regular Christmas activity into their routine in the build up to Christmas, such as opening the advent calendar, watching a Christmas film, or turning on the Christmas tree lights.

However, you may want to give your child some time not focused on Christmas, which lets you monitor how anxious they are feeling and gives you chance to make any changes. If there are any moments on Christmas Day or beforehand that you think might be a bit too much, create a Christmas-free zone where they can have a bit of quiet time with a favourite activity.

Limit the number of presents


Setting a limit on the number of presents can help stop your child getting overwhelmed by the day. The NAS suggests giving one physical present from mum and dad, and perhaps one more from a family member, while others could give money as an alternative.

Even if there’s only a couple, give the gifts one by one, rather than all at once, and balance them with a familiar object – for instance, handing over a new toy alongside one they already treasure. Unless your child likes the sensation of unwrapping, there’s also no harm in giving the gifts unwrapped.

Involve your child with the Christmas decorations


Just like seeing a lot of presents at once, coming home to a house full of decorations and fairy lights can be unsettling. To make putting up the Christmas decorations as fun as possible, involve your child them in the process – it’ll be less of a shock when they all appear, and is likely to reduce the chance of them getting upset. Take them along when you’re shopping for decorations and let them see and handle them before they’re hung.

You could try putting up the decorations gradually while keeping some decorations away from communal areas – Christmas lights might be a bit too much for the living room, for example, but could still go in the bedrooms.

Attend autism-friendly events

Christmas is the time of year when you’re likely to be getting out and about more than usual, and the large crowds and busy streets can be an issue.

However, there are lots of events, and performances and cinema screenings that go on at Christmas that are specifically suited for children with additional needs. We’ve rounded up some of the best performances and places around the country you can visit to into the Christmas spirit:

Relaxed performances for pantomimes and shows for Christmas 2016

Relaxed performances are shows which are designed to have a more relaxed environment. They are particularly suited to those on the Autism Spectrum Condition, have a sensory and communication disorders, or a learning disability.

Relaxed performances in December

14th December, Cinderella, Princess Theatre, Torquay, 2pm
16th December, Aladdin, Grand Opera House, York, 6:30pm 19th December, Cinderella, Regent Theatre, 2pm 19th December, Aladdin, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury, 1:30pm 21st December, Snow White, Liverpool Empire, 2pm 21st December, Sleeping Beauty, The Anvil, Basingstoke, 2:00pm 22nd December, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Lowry, Salford, 2pm 27th December, Sorry Christmas is Cancelled…Katie Saves the Day!, The Lowry, Salford, 2pm 28th December, Sleeping Beauty, Sunderland Empire, 5pm
29th December The Snowman and Peter and the Wolf, The Royal Concert Hall Nottingham, 3:00 pm
29th December, James and the Giant Peach, Northern Stage, Newcastle, 2pm
29th December, Horrible Histories Live on Stage: Horrible Christmas, The Lowry, Salford 2pm 30th December, Aladdin, Opera House, Manchester, 1pm
30th December, The Lost Present…A Christmas Adventure, The Lowry, Salford, 2pm.

Relaxed performances in January

4th January, Jack and the Beanstalk Gala Theatre Durham, 6pm 5th January, Jack and the Beanstalk, Theatre Royale, Nottingham, January, 1:30pm and 7:15pm 3rd January, Dick Whittington, Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, 1pm 3rd January, Robin Hood, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 5th January, Sleeping beauty, Richmond Theatre, 1:30pm
5th January, Snow White, New Victoria Theatre, Woking 7pm 6th January, Cinderella, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 11am
10th January, Cinderella, Theatre Royale, Newcastle, 12pm 11th January, Dick Whittington, New Wimbledon Theatre, 11am 21st January, Peter Pan, National Theatre, 2pm 21st January, Junk Puppets (Relaxed Workshop), National Theatre, 11am

Events for children with autism over Christmas

14th December, World of Wonder Christmas party, Belfast
The indoor play centre in Carrickfergus, Belfast is hosting a Christmas party, especially for children with autism. There will be a visit from Santa, with a silent anta option, as well as a sensory area and a chill out room. Book tickets at wowni.co.uk

The Thomas Centre, Lincolnshire
The Thomas Centre is a holiday park specially suited for children and adults with autism and related conditions as well as families and carers. The centre aims to provide the needs of the whole family, not just the member with autism, and has the option to book for parties for Christmas parties and events. To find out more, visit thethomascentre.co.uk

Relaxed cinema screenings over Christmas

Various cinemas, including Cineworld, Showcase, Vue, and Odeon, hold regularly autism-friendly screenings, which can be a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Check with your local cinema for upcoming screenings.