Ways to make your girl’s Christmas more neurodivergent-friendly
Last December I wrote a blog about how my family celebrates Christmas, and how chicken nuggets are always acceptable at the Christmas dinner table. You can read last year’s blog here.
This year I have been thinking more about how families new to neurodivergence might need a bit more help in adapting their Christmas and New Year traditions to better accommodate their autistic loved ones.
It is difficult to generalise at this time of year, because it seems as if every family has particular traditions or customs that make up ‘their’ Christmas, but there are small changes which could be tried and which may help your autistic girl to feel more comfortable about the festive season.
First of all, she will have been hearing about Christmas a lot in the last few weeks. Schools tend to gear up for Christmas performances, carol services, nativity plays, changes of routine and occasionally, non-uniform days or dressing up. Television and streaming services are full of Christmas episodes of familiar programmes, as well as there being festive films and other one-off specials which are available to view. This change to familiar routine, whilst creating excitement for some children, may well be an unsettling experience for your autistic girl. If your girl is anything like mine, who hates it when I even get a new hair cut or new glasses, seeing her familiar tv routine changed may be difficult for her, particularly if she uses familiar shows to help her to relax and feel comforted.
Your girl may also be finding that her sensory sensitivities are more noticeable at the moment. This is something which needs to be accommodated as much as possible. Sensory sensitivities can be heightened by stress, and so if she is feeling anxious due to the change in routine, this may result in her being more sensitive to the sensory things she normally finds difficult, or may even make her less able to cope with sensory input that normally doesn’t bother her. This is normal and does not mean that she is either being dramatic or going down with something. In fact, it is worth remembering that there is more sensory input for a neurodivergent person at this time of year than, say, the summer holidays. There are bright lights everywhere, constant music (particularly in shops), decorations, smells of spices and particular things which are generally only eaten at this time of year, and everywhere seems to be much busier. For an autistic person who is usually able to cope with the sensory environment with only a few accommodations, this additional stress may make them struggle.
The food eaten at Christmas is often very different from that eaten at other times of year. For autistic people who have a narrow range of foods, this can be really awkward, particularly if pressured by older family members to eat the same as everyone else. It can create a situation which is quite the opposite of the happy Christmas that is being aimed for.
The social interactions at Christmas can be very confusing and overwhelming for autistic people. There are the unwritten rules of gift-giving and receiving, particularly the social pressure to be thankful and pleased with whatever was inside the wrapping, even if it wasn’t what you were expecting or hoping for. There’s the awkward situation of not knowing how much to spend, and trying to make sure that the present that you give is of a similar value to the one you will receive. And then there are the family visits to others’ houses, the unstructured time with extended family or friends, and the expectation that everyone will just relax and be able to enjoy themselves. Not to mention the handling of opening the gifts and the overwhelm that can bring either from the gifts themselves, or from the sea of paper and tape which results from them.
Santa and the Elf on the Shelf can also be problematic for autistic children. The idea that a strange man comes into her home (a safe place), uninvited, and knows whether she has been bad or good, is quite distressing for some children. The Elf adds an extra layer of anxiety to this, particularly when it is used to imply that the toy can move when she isn’t looking, and that it is checking up on her. Not to mention how she may feel when she discovers that it has all been faked all along. It may be worth reconsidering if this is magical or stressful for your child.
So… how can you make small accommodations to make your autistic girl’s Christmas a little easier?
Have a weekly planner on the wall so that she can see what will be happening when. We have one similar to this one on Amazon. This can be used for her to see what days you are going to visit Grandma, or have a trip to the shops, or anything else you might be doing during the school holidays. Consider that the school holidays can involve a lot of unstructured time, which some autistic children find difficult as their routine has changed.
Have an advent calendar so that she knows when it will be Christmas. My suggestion would be not to have one which is filled with chocolate, but have one which you can put something small in every day. My daughter has one with pockets, and I only fill them one day at a time. So there is no battle with impulse control and wanting to eat all of the chocolates at once, as there simply aren’t any more available once she has eaten the one for that day.
For Christmas Day itself, put together a visual schedule showing what you expect to be happening. It doesn’t have to be fancy or to have exact timings, but having a general idea of the shape of the day may help your girl to feel more settled. We really like these communication cards from Communication Friendly, which are free to download and cover all of the holidays as well as Christmas itself.
Consider limiting the decorations to one part of your home, so that there are other areas which are unchanged and familiar for your girl.
Allow your girl the flexibility to leave the family gathering when she needs to be alone, without putting pressure on her to come and see Aunty Mildred. Be firm with older family members by telling them that she knows her limits and needs to be alone in a calm space. If your girl feels able to rejoin you all, great, but if she is unable to, she should not be made to feel bad about it. Consider ways in which you can give her space if you are at someone else’s house, for example, taking a walk with her, or allowing her to find a quiet corner to sit and read. We find ear defenders and an ipad are an absolute must. And if she looks as if a meltdown or shutdown is on the horizon, let her know that you can see that she is struggling, and be prepared to leave the environment if you can, or at the very least take her out of it until she feels calmer. Guilt-free permission to escape can be very valuable to her at a time when she may not be able to put that feeling into coherent words.
Allow your girl to eat whatever she feels happiest with at the Christmas dinner table. If it’s a peanut butter sandwich, fine. Maybe she prefers to have her usual pasta and cheese, or chicken nuggets. If her least favourite food is a roast dinner (like my daughter), then no amount of persuading is going to make her eat and enjoy it. Some traditions can be adjusted – for example, we have a traditional Christmas dinner but I do chicken nuggets for my daughter and make sure that some of the vegetables are boiled and kept separate from the rest. She gets to serve herself (a treat) and we get to eat together and all enjoy the meal. If we are at another home, we sometimes bring food with us for her, to make it easier for her to relax knowing that there is food she feels is ok to eat. It can sometimes result in her trying new things because she knows she won’t go hungry if she doesn’t like the new food.
It is worth talking to your girl to find out how she feels about surprises and presents. Does she like to know exactly what she is getting? Would she prefer the presents to be wrapped or unwrapped? Would she like you to choose her present from a list she has written? You do not have to follow traditions in this regard. If she only wants one present at a time, spread them out throughout the holidays. If she would rather not have them wrapped, or only wants partial wrapping paper, that is her choice and it would frankly be a lot less hassle anyway!
I hope that this has given you some ideas about how you can support your autistic girl this Christmas and beyond.
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy