While the festive season is one filled with love and fond memories, it can also be a stressful time. Children with Autism and developmental delays may experience sensory overload from all the new sights, sounds, and smells, making it a difficult time to enjoy. It is important to provide a safe and comfortable space and experience to help Autistic children cope during the busy season and enable them to enjoy it as much as possible.

Planning ahead is a key way to ensure your child feels safe and to help them avoid feeling overwhelmed or stressed. Our team at Freedom Social Skills has collated some top tips to help prepare your child and family for the upcoming festive season.

  1. Preparation is key.

At the first sign of decorations, start the conversation. Talk about what Christmas means to you as a family, any traditions, etc. It can be helpful to share this information with your child in age-appropriate and relatable ways:

  • Reading Christmas Stories
  • Preparing a social story about what to expect on Christmas day
  • Creating a visual calendar
  • Using an advent calendar for a fun Christmas countdown

Many Autistic children have a strong need for routine, if this is important for you, trying to stick to the same daily schedule as much as possible throughout the festive period may be helpful.

Gradually introduce any Christmas activities into the schedule, ensuring you incorporate extra downtime before and afterward if needed. For instance, you could put up one decoration each day, or plan ahead and schedule a Christmas shopping trip on another day. It is a good idea to plan not only for Christmas day but for the entire Christmas period and ensure there are quiet days for you and your child to rest and recoup.

  1. Sensory Overload.

It’s important to consider and plan around sensory activities and differences that could cause discomfort. If you can, avoid taking your children to shops or to places that are overly busy and noisy. If they do need to accompany you, allow for an extra wind-down time afterward. It is a good idea to ensure you are always able to find a quiet space for your child where they can take a break if they feel overwhelmed or stressed. This may be an area free from anything Christmas related, particularly at key times when there may be an additional stress.

On shopping, day create a list of things to buy and get your child to check it off as you shop and get your child to help you tick it off. At the end of the list, you may want to include getting your child to pick one Christmas present, pick a Christmas treat, or a decoration, so there is something to look forward to.

  1. Decorations.

For some Autistic children, decorations may cause sensory overload, so it’s important to gradually introduce them to the home and keep them to a minimum where possible. Discuss and plan with your child the most suitable decorations for the home, where to place them, and how many they would feel comfortable having if any. The same goes for removing the decorations when the time comes, as any sudden change may create stress.

For children that are sensitive to smells, you may want to minimise anything with a scent. This may involve avoiding candles and any other decorative piece with a scent. It may also be a good idea to keep parts of the home free from Christmas decorations to help avoid sensory overload.

If you want to decorate and celebrate but are worried that your child might break the decorations, get them to make cute Christmas decorations themselves. You could set a rule that those are the decorations they can play with. You could make a Christmas bauble for the tree, Paint Christmas moulds, Make a gingerbread house, or Christmas cookies, Christmas colouring, or collage. These inexpensive decorations will bring your child joy as you can do them together every year without fear of them breaking and still celebrate Christmas.

  1. Prior Practice.

For Christmas day, in particular, practicing any new, stressful or uncomfortable activities that your child may encounter can help prepare them and prevent any challenges on the day. Practice the things your child might find difficult at various events, for example sitting at the table or being in a new environment. Some ideas include:

  • You could practice sitting for increasing amounts of time at the table.
  • Try exposing them to the new foods they might taste on Christmas day
  • Use social stories to introduce new family or routines

If you are visiting family or friends for Christmas, it can be helpful to let them know anything that could help make your visit with your child as stress-free as possible. This may include turning off Christmas lights, letting you know what food will be served, ensuring there is a quiet space available if needed, and sharing plans for the day. Your family might create a safe space for your child which is quiet and has all of their favourite things to play with.

  1. Presents.

Many autistic children don’t like surprises, so it might be best to tell your child what their presents will be or let them choose them themselves. This includes letting them know or asking them where they would like their presents to be, and how or if they’ll be wrapped. This may also involve letting your child know the presents they will be receiving from family and friends. It’s also important to avoid pressuring your child during this stressful time and allow them to unwrap and open presents they receive in their own time. If your child has trouble waiting you could use an advent calendar or let them open a small gift each day leading up to Christmas. If you would like to have Christmas presents under the tree but aren’t sure you can trust your child not to open them, maybe you could wrap up cardboard boxes without gifts inside. Your child will realise there is nothing there and leave them alone. On the night before Christmas, you can put the gifts inside the boxes and the next day they will be surprised to see all their amazing gifts appear.

  1. On the day.

Special Events are often long days. Don’t be afraid to arrive late and leave early if you need to, your friends and family will understand. Christmas day can be overwhelming and stressful for all, so it’s important to be gentle with your child and not to pressure them into any activity that may create distress.

Ultimately, it’s important to plan for the festive season with your child as much as possible and as far in advance as possible, to limit any additional stress or discomfort. We hope that incorporating the key tips discussed above will help you and your family to enjoy the festive season as much as possible and prepare accordingly.

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