Christmas. Love it or hate it, it’s coming our way again – sooner than you think!
Because we know that this can be such a difficult, fraught and stressful time of year for families like ours, we’re sharing our best Tom Tag tips for an autism-tastic Christmas.
Follow these tips of planning, preparation and patience to get ready for an autism-friendly Christmas that’s just right for you and your family.
PART 1: Planning
#1: Project Christmas: Decide what’s the best way to ‘do’ Christmas for YOU and YOUR family
We love this idea from the Gina Davies Autism Centre. Grab a cuppa, a notebook and pen and start planning. Think about the whole upcoming Christmas period, not just the day itself. Reflecting on what was stressful last Christmas is a good starting point.
- ✍Make a list with four columns headed up Achievable, Desirable, High Risk, Impossible!
- 🤔Think about what is planned or expected over Christmas and place each activity under one of the four columns.
- 🗞Keep your plan to hand and add to it as necessary.
- 👏Don’t aim for 100% – if you can manage most of the achievable, one or two things in the desirable column and manage to come through everything in the risky column be proud of yourself – you’ve helped your family enjoy the bits of Christmas that work for them.
#2: Make a personalised ‘All about Christmas’ visual guide to show all the different things you might find or do at this time of year.
For example, a photo collage or Christmas scrapbook showing Christmas objects, Christmas food and activities that only happen at Christmas e.g. meeting Father Christmas or pulling Christmas crackers. You could also include pictures of your family celebrating Christmas.
Children with autism tend to forget social information so a permanent visual guide is a great way to remind them what Christmas looks like.
#3: Talk to your child’s school or support team so you know what different things they might be doing and when.
Ask them if they have a copy of this excellent autism advent calendar for schools from the National Autistic Society. If not, print a copy off for them to use to help your child manage during the Christmas period at school.
Have a meeting with your child’s teacher to plan together how you can help your child cope with the activities coming up. Keep communication going throughout the Christmas period with a ‘Home- School’ book such as the lovely one available from That Beautiful Mind.
#4: Take time to sit down with your child and talk through anything they might be finding confusing or unsettling about Christmastime and all its festivities.
It’s often the little things we don’t even notice that can seem so huge to them.
Look back at your Christmas plan (see Planning tip #2) and for each planned activity or event, make a two-column list headed ‘Concerns and Solutions’. Ask your child what concerns they may have and then together think about and write down a solution.
- 🏘 a visit to family or friends
- 😟 worry about what they will drink
- 👍agree to take their favourite drink or ask the hosts whether they have it.
This think-say-do approach is a great way for dealing with uncertainties that occur throughout the year not just at Christmastime.
#5: Make realistic plans for your shopping needs.
Choose quieter times of day, take a list, use a babysitter, bring snacks, shop online.
Christmas shopping with a child who has autism is definitely a high-risk activity! Sounds, lights and the hustle and bustle of crowds – it’s easy to see why meltdowns occur and shopping trips are abandoned. There’s no need to be superhuman. Keep it simple, practical and do-able!
#6: Talk about social rules and different expectations that people might have around Christmastime.
Christmas is usually a time of increased social contact and festive events with family and friends. Use a visual schedule to show what’s going to happen before any visitors come to the house or when going to parties, visiting family and friends. Roleplay and practice greeting visitors appropriately and saying please and thank you.
#7: If your child has little or no interest in typical toys, make a list of alternative gift ideas that you can suggest to relatives and friends when they ask what presents they can buy.
Sensory Direct have a wide range of sensory toys and equipment for autistic children. You could also suggest something small and inexpensive and ask that any money left over is put towards an activity that your child enjoys or time with a favourite babysitter.
#8: Make sure visual schedules are updated to show any changes to routine or special festive events.
Using a visual schedule, like TomTag, at home or school is a great way to make sure that children with autism (like ours) know about and can prepare themselves for anything different that’s going to happen.
In our experience, front-loading any changes to routine early on means that they can be coped with. Later changes to routine (however small) can cause distress and anxiety. Check out our I know what to expect at Christmas and birthdays kit for ideas.
#9: Let your children help to choose and put up the decorations in and around your home.
Christmas decorations can be disruptive to children with autism. Consider decorating gradually over a few days so they are not overwhelmed immediately. If inside decorations are too much then decorate outside the house only.
Twinkly, shiny, glittery Christmas lights whilst enjoyable to look at can lead to sensory overload. Consider limiting the number on display and choose lights that have different settings you can control.
PART 2: Preparation
#1: Keep sensory armour to hand for trips to the shop, parties and other festive events where sensory experiences can easily become overloads
Sensory armour could include:
- 🎧 headphones to cut out some of the noise and sound
- 🧢 a cap to help shut out some of the flashing lights or people
- 🕶 dark glasses to reduce the light intensity
- 🧸 a favourite comforter for reassurance
- 🍪 small portions of snacks to help when things get tricky
#2: Prepare for visitors and visits from family and friends by talking to your child about who they are going to see and how to greet them
A personalised visual checklist is a great way to show your child who all the family members are that they may be meeting and what an appropriate social contact might be for each group. You can find appropriate symbols in our Christmas & Birthdays sticker pack (links below).
#3: Leave some areas of the house undecorated so there’s always a quiet place for your child to retreat to if they need it
Flashing lights, glittery objects and jingling bells all around the house are natural triggers for sensory overload. Having a Christmas – free zone to escape to can help bring stress levels caused by sensory overload down to more manageable levels.
#4: Discuss the escape plans that it’s ok for your child to use if everything gets too much for them
Having a calm and quiet place to escape the noise and bustle of Christmas is crucial. Agree with your child how they will let you know that they need to use it. For us, Tom showing me a simple red card when he’d had enough worked well.
#5: Think and talk about the extra social demands that might trigger anxieties or sensory problems
Spending time with family and friends, the expectation to be ‘happy’ and join in can be stressful for all of us – particularly for children with autism.
Use a visual schedule to explain what is going to happen and try to avoid social visits on consecutive days to allow for some downtime.
#6: Advent calendars are a great way to prepare for and understand the count down to Christmas
We love this idea from The Autism Page for a Christmas Book Advent Calendar. It combines the excitement of unwrapping a new Christmas book each day with the benefit of using the books to build up an understanding of Christmas.
#7: Be prepared that your child might not be able to sit at the table for as long as you would like (or maybe not at all). Warn your host if you are not having Christmas dinner at home.
It can be stressful to have your child’s behaviour ‘on display’ to family and friends at shared meals. Be practical, realistic and upfront about it. If your child only sits at the table for say three minutes usually then Christmas day is unlikely to be any different. Take turns to supervise them or provide them with something to keep them occupied.
Keep working on mealtime skills at home and maybe next year will be different!
#8: For children who won’t eat a traditional Christmas dinner or the main meal you’re serving, prepare and freeze their meals in advance to reduce workload on the day
Just don’t forget to get them back out of the freezer in time!
#9: Consider your child’s sensory needs when wrapping up presents. There’s lots of great alternatives to traditional Christmas paper such as foil or fabric.
The choice of alternatives will depend on whether the sensory issues relate to over or under sensitivities. Aluminium kitchen foil is brilliant for quickly wrapping all sorts of odd shapes and sizes as well as being shiny and noisy if your child likes that kind of sensory input. For something more gentle, calming and simple to open, try fabric tied with a ribbon where just a quick pull will reveal the gift. The bonus is that these options are eco-friendly too.
#10: If toys need assembling or batteries putting in before they can be used, do this before wrapping them up so that they can be played with straight away on Christmas day
It’s always worth checking inside boxes and packaging even if you’re not expecting there to be any assembly required as those pesky ties and tape seem to get everywhere!
PART 3: Patience
#1 In the build up to Christmas, remember to exercise some self care so that you can manage your energy levels and remain focused on what you and your child can realistically achieve
Play some relaxing music, burn some scented candles, take a relaxing hot bath to relax. Practice breathing!
#2 Take the time to read social stories with your child about what to expect at Christmas, including meeting with Santa.
Social stories are particularly helpful for activities that only happen at Christmas. You can make your own or check out the FREE printable Christmas social story about meeting Santa on the wonderful parenting blog And Next Comes L – Hyperlexia & Autism Resources
#3 Christmas is a time when sensory issues are greater than ever. To help prevent sensory sensitivities becoming overloads, allow your child to have some control over these experiences.
Where possible let your child have direct control of their sensory experience. For example, hand them control of buttons for the lights (if appropriate) or provide sensory defences like ear defenders or sunglasses.
#4 Many children with autism don’t like surprises so it might help not to wrap presents up.
You could also just tell them what’s inside or use clear cellophane or plain paper for wrapping. If your child finds wrapping paper highly confusing, e.g. thinks that pictures on the paper show what’s inside, then using plain wrapping paper with a clear picture of the contents stuck on the outside will help.
#5 If your child has dietary restrictions, don’t despair. Accept where your chid is now with their food and be patient.
Preferences change so it might not be the same next year!
If you are eating with other people at their house and your child won’t eat any of the food or insists on a particular plate, cup, spoon etc. provide these things so your child can join the party briefly and tell the hosts in advance.
#6 Get some Christmas helpers! Be patient with yourself and ask for help with preparations from family and friends.
Encouraging the whole family to get involved makes everyone feel included and part of the Christmas build-up. Don’t feel like you have to power through on your own.
#7 Buy or make your child’s Christmas costume or party outfit early and let them wear it around the house for short periods of time to help them become comfortable with how it feels.
Costumes and new clothes can be challenging for children with sensory sensitivities. Encouraging them to wear these around the house helps them become more tolerant of the different fabrics against their skin.
#8 Playfully and patiently practice Christmas traditions such as receiving and unwrapping presents and pulling crackers so that your child knows what to expect and can join in.
Play wrapping games by wrapping up items so your child gets used to opening the paper and finding something inside. Buy some cheap crackers and show your child how to pull them and shout ‘bang’ so the noise doesn’t come as a surprise. Practice wearing hats and reading jokes.
#9 Some children may be overwhelmed by a large number of presents all at once.
It’s natural to want to spoil them but be patient and try introducing gifts one at a time over the day or over several days. Alternatively, adopt an advent style approach and bring out a small gift each day on the run-up to Christmas day.