We’ve never had Santa in our house. Not once. Even before I knew that my daughter was on the autistic spectrum, there was no mention of Santa or reindeer or any of it; it just wasn’t my thing. It’s fair to say this stood us in good stead over the years of raising an autistic child and adapting to unconventional ways of doing things.
We’ve always just done whatever felt right for us. In the early years we had a tree. There were some dark years when I banned all of Christmas, because I found it so hard that my child had no interest, no excitement, no joy about or for Christmas. (I am not a ‘Christmas person’ at the best of times but still wanted ‘magic’ for my daughter.)
These days, we have a tree. My daughter (who has complex needs and global developmental delay alongside autism and potential ADHD) loves the tree, tinkering with baubles and lights to her heart’s content, and is of an age where she is safe to be left to do so, even with the glass ornaments.
When I teach our What Do I Do Now? course, I talk a lot about what I call ‘disruptive parenting’. By disruptive I mean doing what is right for your family despite what the neighbours are doing, what your sister is doing or what your mother in law thinks you should be doing. It’s all about doing what YOU know is right for YOUR family. Setting boundaries, saying, ‘no’.
This is crucially important during the Christmas season. Christmas with autistic children requires you to flex and bend in ways that might be uncomfortable. Here are some ideas for how to make things go as smoothly as possible.
Rethink ‘we’ve always done it this way’
Covid has changed all of our lives. We’ve had to learn new ways of interacting with each other and our loved ones. We have had to make difficult decisions about who to see and who not to see. We’ve endured what I call ‘Covid shaming’, where people make us feel bad for not hugging, or not sitting next to them.
The Covid Christmas will push this much further. Family members may make you feel guilty for not visiting. You’ll need to be flexible with traditions you hold dear. I spoke to one mum the other day who said their Christmas family get together was normally around 15 people and that even she and her partner (both neurotypical) found this too much. She told me that she was relieved that this year it would just be her small family visiting one set of grandparents. I’d like to think that is a tradition that will stick far after the time when they aren’t restricted by the virus.
Having an autistic child forces you to look at your personal Christmas traditions. Why do you do that activity? Why do you bake that cake or eat that food? These may be things you inherited from your family when you were growing up, or from your partner and their family. Some will be cherished traditions but some, when you really look at them, no longer serve a purpose. It’s important to take stock of your traditions and work out what fits your current family situation and what may need to go.
Please understand that I am not being flippant; I am well aware that this can be a very sad process.
Allow for decompression time
Allow time after school finishes for your child to decompress from the stress of the previous month. There will have been lots of changes at school and in the community – lights, non-uniform days, decorations, activities, music. Try not to plan big activities for the first few days. Let them rest and recover from the stress of December.
Avoid gift-related dramas
Don’t force your child to open gifts in front of people. This is a very anxiety-provoking activity! The pressure of not knowing what the gift is, not knowing if they will like it and not knowing how they are meant to react can cause great anxiety.
You may have also been in the situation with your child where they open a gift from Auntie Sue (with Auntie Sue present) and make it abundantly clear that they do not want or like the gift. Saving presents to be opened in private is a kindness.
Be prepared! Depending on your child it might be wise to remove packaging from toys before wrapping them, so that the items are able to be played with straight away. Similarly, it’s best to put batteries in things that need batteries, and charge up anything that needs charging. If something needs registering in order to work, do that ahead of time. Download things that need downloading. Do all you can to minimise any dramas that can occur if your child has to wait for a toy, game or device to be available for them to play with.
Many of our children do not present as the age they are on paper. It can be difficult if you have a relative who shops from lists they find on the internet, such as ‘the top gifts for boys aged 10’. They might be 10 biologically but act more like 6. My daughter is 11 and she would be perfectly happy with a selection of musical toddler toys. Help friends and family by providing a list of gifts that your child will actually like.
Make plans clear
While your plans may be limited, if you are visiting family or if they are visiting you, make sure your child is very clear on what is happening and when. You may want to make a visual schedule for your child to help them navigate the changes in routine that Christmas brings.
Let everyone eat whatever they want
What do you want to eat on Christmas Day? What does your family want? Do you really want turkey? A friend of mine realised that what her family actually wants is pigs in blankets. So that will be what they have for Christmas dinner – pigs in blankets with all the trimmings. We are having sushi. What do you want? What works for you, for your family? Do that.
Talk to your child
If your child is verbal and able to communicate what they want or don’t want, talk to them about Christmas. What do they want to do? What do they want to eat? Do they want to know what they are getting for Christmas? Do they even want you to wrap their gifts?
Make new traditions
You might have to give up some traditions that you have had all of your life, but you can replace them with fun, new ones. Maybe you’ll drive round to see the local light displays. Maybe you’ll make a special new cake or play a new game. Some families I know limit Christmas to a 24-hour period. Tree goes up on the 24th. Presents Christmas morning. Christmas dinner. Tree comes down. Job done. This may seem extreme but for some families the one-day Christmas works a treat and minimises anxiety and stress for their autistic child.
Give up control
My ultimate top tip for you, dear parent or carer of an autistic child, is to let go of what is out of your control. This is generally everyone that is not you, and everything that is not your reaction to something. By its very nature, Christmas is not autism friendly. The huge routine shift, different food and too much of it, lights, sounds, being around different people you may or may not like, etc., etc., etc. You are not in control of making it all work.
Cut yourself some slack and enjoy the things you can enjoy.