Helping a child with autism to navigate their way through Christmas can be challenging. But there are ways to get through the festive fuss together. Here's how:
Don't feel pressure to conform
Other people's expectations can be one of the toughest things to contend with as a parent or carer of a child with autism. From onlookers who mistake meltdowns for 'bad' behaviour to well-meaning friends and relatives who try to help, it can feel as though your parenting skills – and your child – are on trial at Christmas.
It can be difficult to resist the pressure to conform to other people's expectations, especially when you're away from home or perhaps in a house full of relatives with neuro-typical children whose behaviour might seem very different from that of a child who is on the autism spectrum, but no-one understands your child like you do. So try to throw off the pressure to fit in with the plans or expectations of other family members, and consider broaching a conversation with them in advance about aspects of the day that your child is likely to feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed by.
Shop during Autism Hour
It's a bit late for this year but The National Autistic Society runs Autism Hour during October – in response to the fact that 64% of autistic people and their families avoid going the shops – to reduce the sensory overload of shopping environments and make them more autism-friendly. Smaller, independent shops also run autism-friendly sessions in the run-up to Christmas so check out local retailers for opening hours that might make shopping with your child less stressful.
Check your own expectations
As a mum, I know we can be guilty of placing lots of unreasonable expectations on our kids at Christmas – and this can be even more the case for parents of children with autism. We want them to express gratitude, behave beautifully, eat food they'd never normally touch and cope with sugar overload – all on a day when the comfort and security of all the normal routines have gone out the window! So it's worth taking a moment to check your own expectations of your child and, if they're a touch unrealistic, gently remind yourself to go easy on your child and on yourself, at least for today.
Let's talk about food
For children with autism, food can be a minefield and a source of real fear. No-one wants tears at the Christmas dinner table so try not to fret about what your child will and won't eat – have plenty of the foods they do like to hand, and forget all about encouraging kids to eat up their Brussels sprouts if it's likely to lead to loggerheads. We're going out for dinner on Christmas Day this year and I'm already fretting about how much of the very expensive five-course festive menu my kids will actually touch. So I'm giving myself a good talking to, filling them up with a decent Christmas breakkie, and reminding myself to lighten up about what they do or don't eat at lunchtime.
Create a quiet space
Having somewhere quiet and peaceful to retreat to can help children with autism respond to their feelings in a way that feels safe. Obviously this can be hard to organise if you're doing Christmas at someone else's house, but the main thing is to make sure your child knows that there's a quiet space for them to retreat to at any time during the festivities if they wish. Some children need more active encouragement to get some quiet down time, so don't hesitate to whisk your child away when signs indicate he or she would benefit from a little bit of space. Again, chat with whoever is hosting if it helps you feel more at ease about doing whatever you need to do to help your child manage their feelings and enjoy the day.
Have you got tips to share for helping a child with autism handle the fuss and festivities of Christmas Day? Leave us a comment here or why not come and join the conversation over on our Facebook page?