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

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  • Christmas is an exciting time of year for most families.

    Sparkling decorations, shiny new Christmas toys and fun family festivities usually make December one of the highlights of the year. But for those with a child who has a condition on the autistic spectrum, the change in routine, big events, loud noises 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.

    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 2019

    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:

    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.