Christmas can be a wonderful time of the year, full of magic and excitement, but for some, it can also be quite overwhelming. Understanding how to navigate autism at Christmas can help ease any worries about the festive season and make preparations that will help you or those around you enjoy Christmas.
As our normal routines can change along with unfamiliar smells, sights, sounds, textures and tastes, we hope to offer suggestions to help you prepare or adapt these changes depending on individual needs. Every autistic person experiences the world around them differently; this means there is no right or wrong way to create an autism-friendly Christmas.
Understanding what challenges and triggers may come with autism and Christmas, is an important part of establishing what preparations may need to be made in order to create an enjoyable autism-friendly Christmas.
• Social Engagements
An increase in social engagements, including in the home, school or work and out in public, where more people will gather to shop or participate in festive events.
Changes in everyday routine. Even the smallest of changes to an autistic person’s daily schedule can have a big impact on an individual’s anxiety or stress levels.
Decorations introduce colours, bright lights, smells, textures and even sounds, all of which can contribute to sensory overload.
• Gift Giving
The unpredictability of gift-giving can increase feelings of anxiety. Giving and receiving gifts also often come with unspoken societal expectations can be stressful.
• Festive Food
Changing what we normally eat introduces different textures, tastes and smells that can be unsettling for some.
The key to navigating autism at Christmas is preparation! Once you are aware of the possible triggers and challenges you or someone you care for may face, you can begin to put in place some preparations.
• Plan Social Engagements Well in Advance
Planning any social event in advance will give you more time to talk about when the social engagement will take place, where it will be, who will be there and what everyone will be doing. The more detail about the social engagement, the better!
You might look at images of the people who will attend (particularly if they are family members or friends who have not been seen recently). This may help to ease the worries around the uncertainty of the event and the people that will be there.
What’s more, keep in mind an area to go for some time out if you or someone you care for begins to feel sensory overload. This planning also allows you to find suitable ‘escape zones’ to provide a space away from the event if it is needed.
• Take the Unpredictability Out of Gift Giving
Many autistic people can feel extreme anxiety about giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. To avoid the unknowns, offer to set clear expectations with your autistic friends or family members. The needs and preferences for these expectations will vary from person to person but might include a budget, some gift ideas and even letting them know what you’ve got them or how much it cost. Not every gift needs to be a surprise to create an enjoyable gift-giving experience! Talking about what each present is, or even allowing those with autism to wrap the gift themselves, may alleviate any worries around surprises.
• Stick to a Routine
Often, routines are autistic people’s preferred way to deal with all the changes that can happen on a daily basis. A way to navigate autism at Christmas may be to stick to a routine as much as possible, even on Christmas day! If any changes in routine are unavoidable, begin introducing them gradually over a period of time. It may also be helpful to keep a visual note of any changes to the routine on a calendar or diary, and give reminders leading up to that change of routine.
• Select Appropriate Decorations
Decorations are often a big contributor to sensory overload, as the prominent sights, sounds, smells and textures can be overwhelming. There are many options to consider; decorations could be kept to a single room, you could use less bold and more muted tones, or you could ensure that one or two rooms remain the same, with no added decorations.
For autistic children, having their bedroom or a sensory room remain the same as the rest of the year can give them somewhere to escape if things become too much, while leaving them free to join in with festivities that they enjoy.
• Relieve Food Pressures
Christmas food is often an explosion of the senses, with strong flavours and smells and different textures. Introducing completely new foods for Christmas may not be the best for everyone. Relieve the pressure that different foods can bring and embrace foods that are already established in a routine. Making festive food an option that can be enjoyed on an autistic person’s own terms (and not making a big deal if they choose safe foods over Christmas turkey) will offer them better control over their festive eating experience.
Keeping open communication with those around you about routines, possible triggers, and what they could do to help make things as stress-free as possible will help reduce the possibility of any triggers or situations that may cause anxiety.
You may also have to be an advocate, particularly for autistic children, among those who might not understand their needs – for example, if your child dislikes physical touch but their grandparent wants a hug, you may have to step in between them and say, “[Child] does not wish to be touched - please respect their boundary. Why don’t you two wave hello instead?”
Preparations can only plan for so much, and the uncertainty of everyday life and unplanned changes can be unsettling to those with autism at Christmas. Having a few ideas of what to do if things don’t go quite to plan may help when challenges are faced.
• Don’t Feel Pressured
It can be easy to feel pressured to keep up with those around us, the events, the gifts, the food, and everything else in between. Doing what works for you is the best way to manage the festive season. If that means leaving an event, not eating a specific food that is offered or not taking part in a social engagement, then that is ok!
• Create a Sensory Space
At Experia UK, we are passionate about creating sensory spaces because we understand the benefits it can have to so many. Consider creating your own sensory space, whether that is a specific area of a room or the entire room! With the increase in sensory stimuli during the Christmas period, finding a space to relax and feel in control becomes more important than ever. The important thing to note is that with all the changes Christmas may bring, a sensory room is there to stay the same, a predictable constant that provides safety and security while everything else around it may be in motion.
• Have an Escape Plan
Sometimes, things go wrong – maybe you or someone you care for are overwhelmed, having a meltdown or facing autistic burnout from masking. Remember that the festive season should be enjoyable for everyone, and if you’re struggling, it’s completely okay to take yourself out of that situation! Whether you need to find a quiet place to yourself for fifteen minutes or leave the event entirely and get home, it’s worth having a plan and discussing it with the person you care for so you both know you’re never trapped.
These are just some resources to help navigate autism at Christmas, though it is always important to keep in mind that each autistic person has different strengths and challenges, and the best way to create an autism friendly Christmas is to tailor any changes to their individual needs.
Take a look at our range of portable sensory equipment that enables you to take that sensory space with you wherever you go or our range of multifunctional fibre optics, a fantastic addition to any sensory space. Alternatively, head to our blog for tips on making a sensory room on a budget and many more!