I haven’t really written much for a while, it often feels like everything has been said, and I’m not sure what I can add to the ever-growing treasure-trove of autistic writings. But, I remember back when my son was younger and I was looking for strategies to support him, and then when I was struggling and not sure about getting myself assessed, and I remember that what helped me most was reading lots of accounts by autistic people and parents of autistic children (autistic and otherwise). I didn’t always agree with what I read (and still don’t), but reading about the same thing from many different angles is helpful, even if it’s just to confirm that they’re wrong and I’m right…
I know that many others have written about Christmas for autistic people, especially how to help autistic children cope with the festivities and social requirements. From my perspective as a parent of an autistic child, much of what I’ve read has been about how to prepare autistic children to manage the social demands of Christmas. It has been more about moulding the child to fit the expectations and rather less about moulding Christmas to fit the child. It’s also become clear, as an autistic adult, that little thought goes into supporting us with Christmas.
Christmas can be the best time of year for some autistic people, families often do the same things every year with little change, the food is predictable and there is usually more choice and freedom around eating than usual, and for those autistics who like to plan and be in control, it offers an opportunity to show off fabulous organisational and hosting skills (I am not one of those autistics).
For many of us though, and for many of our children, Christmas and the preceding weeks can be incredibly difficult. This post is for us, so here are my tips for an actually autistic happy Christmas.
School children will almost certainly be overwhelmed and exhausted
November and December can be pretty awful for autistic pupils, particularly in primary schools. Predictable timetables are often set aside in favour of impromptu carol singing and rehearsals for Christmas performances. Pupils get increasingly excited and loud as Christmas gets closer. Talking and thinking about parties and presents can be very stressful for our children. Schools might bring in entertainers or have background music playing. The expectations to be happy and good for Father Christmas can be too much to ask of our more anxious children.
Schools can help by providing detailed and up-to-date timetables and supporting our children’s access to quiet spaces if needed. Schools also need to be aware of the sensory impact on our children, whether it’s the hypersensitive child struggling and shutting down with sensory overload, or the hyposensitive child unable to concentrate and hyperactive as a result of the sensory stimulation, or the child with a combination of hyper- and hypo-sensitivities whose reactions seem inexplicable to the teaching staff.
Parents can help by being aware of the challenges, helping prepare children for change but also advocating for their needs to be met. Those of us with children who hold it in all day and then release the tension at home need to think really carefully about what this cycle of suppression and explosion is doing to our children’s mental health and well-being. Don’t feel bad about keeping children off school if it’s all too much. From his second year of primary school I kept my son home every year on the day of the Christmas party, I did not ask permission, I merely informed school that he was unable to attend. The occasional strategic day off can really make a difference and be the difference between enduring and enjoying.
Autistic adults can find workplace social expectations and interactions complicated and anxiety-provoking
Workplaces in December are full of people talking about Christmas, asking about Christmas, distracted by Christmas and planning work parties. We might struggle with the same sensory and social difficulties as our children, but have often developed more sophisticated masking and coping skills which, under these festive pressures, can slip and crack. Up until I started to suspect I was autistic I did my best to join in and do what seemed expected, but slowly over the past decade or so, I became more confident in declining to join in things I knew I would struggle with.
Employers and colleagues could make things easier by not pressuring us to attend social events, or, even worse, making them compulsory. For me, twinkling lights, shiny decorations and Christmas music are a huge distraction when I’m trying to work. I accept that many people enjoy the chance to decorate the workspace and get in the ‘festive spirit’, but some discussion and accommodation would be welcome. This might be as simple as asking where to put things so they aren’t distracting or uncomfortable for the autistic employee. We might need explicit information about any workplace traditions, don’t assume we know just because you do, chances are we don’t.
When autistic people do want to attend parties and events, it would help if they were planned in a way that minimises social, sensory and other distress. It can help to have clear information about any dress-code, ideally there would be no dress-code so those of us who struggle with the sensory impact of clothing aren’t irritated and irritable because of what we are wearing. Provide information about the plans for the event, if the event has several stages, such as drinks at a bar followed by a sit down meal followed by dancing, make it clear it’s ok to pick and choose what to attend. I can manage a sit down meal but would struggle with the rest, if I know when and how things are happening I can plan and build my own coping strategies into the event. Think about the impact of background music, cracker-pulling and party poppers on your autistic employees and colleagues.
To my fellow autistic adults, don’t feel you must do and be like everyone else, it’s quite freeing to say no when you want to say no. I’ve found that pretty much everyone else is so wrapped up in their own Christmas stuff that they’re fairly oblivious to those, like me, who just want to ignore it all.
Family traditions and expectations might need to adapt and change
We don’t have extensive family obligations over Christmas, meaning we have been able to create a set of low-key Christmas traditions that work for us, without unwanted pressures and social demands. Perhaps the most important rule is that, apart from an Advent calendar, Christmas at home does not begin until school term has ended. Throughout December school pupils seem to get increasingly excited and excitable, and my son gets increasingly overwhelmed (and just a tad annoyed!) by it all.
During this period, home needs to be a safe place for him to escape and relax. School is CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS CHRISTMAS all day long, so we keep home Christmas-free, predictable and ordinary. We put up a tree and decorations the first day of the school holidays, though even that is a concession to me as my son would probably prefer decorations to be displayed just on Christmas Day.
Mostly over Christmas our days are like any other day of the year. On Christmas Day we have breakfast together, which is always toast made under the grill and served in a toast rack, instead of toaster to plate as usual. The rest of the day is quiet and the only noticeable difference is free access to chocolates all day long. Some years ago we discovered that zoos and other attractions are often open on Boxing Day, so while everybody else is doing social and family activities, we take advantage and enjoy the relative peace and emptiness of a zoo, aquarium or, in recent years, the wonderful Eden Project. These places are too busy for us most of the year, but we wrap up warm and it’s a great opportunity to avoid crowds.
We are an autistic family so it’s fairly easy to meet all our needs simultaneously over Christmas. I am aware that for families with a mix of autistic and non-autistic adults and children it’s harder to balance all the needs, but care needs to be taken to ensure that autistic needs are not ignored or forgotten.
It is ok to decline invitations, or for different family members to attend or not attend different events. It might be easier to host so that autistic family members have some control and the safety of their own home and spaces and things. It might be easier to go visit but for a limited time or with one parent leaving earlier with the autistic child. Autistic adults and children need to feel able to use whatever helps them get through situations, and they need allies to support them.
Importantly, finding an event stressful doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to be there, we might just need to do that on our terms, with our chosen supports and strategies, and that needs to be ok. Headphones, hoodies, fidgets and screens can help, and they don’t always mean we are withdrawing, they can be exactly what we do need to enable us to participate.
Ultimately, family members need to think about, consider and listen to their autistic relatives. Spacing out seasonal activities, building in downtime and space for interests, picking and choosing what to attend, sticking to plans, encouraging self-advocacy and respecting the views and needs of autistic children and adults, will all go a long way to making Christmas easier and more enjoyable for everyone. And perhaps sometimes it would be good for autistic needs to come first…
Present buying can be tricky
One thing I suspect many of us have in common is an inability to hide our disappointment with a misjudged or unwanted present. We don’t set out to be ungrateful and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we can’t always hold back those initial thoughts and feelings. The more we try to remember to show gratitude the more stressed we get and the more likely we are to get it horribly and rudely wrong.
Surprises can be very difficult for autistic children and adults. I find this really problematic as I do actually like surprises, but only if they are things I have already identified to myself that I want or need, or something unusual and interesting that I would never have thought of but is exactly the sort of thing I would choose for myself. With my partner I manage this by adding lots of possible options to an Amazon wish list and enabling him to choose. I add things throughout the year and try to forget what I’ve added! My partner just provides a list, and has no expectations or desire for surprises or off-piste gifting.
My son did not like surprise presents until last year, but like me, it can be a tricky ask as he is quite particular about what he likes. It has always helped a lot when family ask what to buy and stick to the list, they then get his genuine response and thanks, rather than a somewhat blunt ‘what did you buy me this for?’. Many surprises have been completely ignored, whilst others, like the rare spinosaurus tooth, have become treasured possessions. Some autistic children prefer to know exactly what they are getting, and this can include needing presents left unwrapped. The anticipation and anxiety of not knowing can be too much pressure which takes away the joy. It doesn’t matter if tradition and the ‘rules’ say surprises are good and presents must be wrapped, if doing that causes unnecessary stress.
It’s important to do what works not what is expected when what’s expected is not what works, and I think that’s my message for enjoying Christmas. It doesn’t matter when and how you decorate and put up a tree, it doesn’t matter if your family Christmas ‘dinner’ is posh toast, it doesn’t matter if you stay home and open presents you asked for, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t leave the house for a week, what matters is doing what works and what’s best for you and your family.
[image shows a Christmassy sign with the words …Oh…Oh…Oh, which has been inverted from the original which said Ho…Ho…Ho…, which itself is an homage to our own Ho Ho Ho garland which we hang turned around to read Oh Oh Oh for a touch of festive subversion]