Bright twinkling lights, carols, meeting new people, eating different foods...sound like a perfect Christmas? For people on the autistic spectrum, Christmas can be a stressful time and not the welcome break that most people enjoy. For most people these are things that make Christmas so special, however, for an individual with autism these are the very factors that make Christmas so difficult and a time to get through as quickly as possible.
Dr Helen Hughes, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and the Clinical Team Lead at Options Malvern View, a division of Outcomes First Group, leaders in the provision of education and care for children and adults with autism, complex and Social Emotional and Mental Health needs (SEMH), offers advice and guidance for parents and carers who look after children, young people and adults with autism, so that Christmas can be a more enjoyable and less stressful time for all involved.
How to handle change
Some people with autism find change difficult. Changes to routines, environment and social expectations can mean that Christmas can be a confusing and challenging time. For those who value predictability, surprise guests can be overwhelming. The abstract nature of the festive season can also heighten people’s anxiety. Overall, these changes can result in an unpleasant experience, so what can we do to help people enjoy the festivities and reduce distress?
Introduce decorations slowly so the changes to the environment are not sudden. Alternatively, just have the decorations up from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day in order to reduce the length of the change. Involve everyone in planning the changes; for example shopping for decorations, deciding where to put them and deciding on the number of decorations.
Create a schedule for Christmas day, including all activities such as opening presents, eating lunch, and family visits. A schedule will create structure and reduce the unpredictability of Christmas day.
Create a safe Christmas-free zone. If Christmas becomes overwhelming this can be used as a retreat.
Christmas can be an overstimulating time of year for those on the autistic spectrum. Some will appreciate the new high impact sensory stimulation, for others this can be a struggle.
The types of extra sensory stimulation that we tend to associate with Christmas include:
Vision – extra visual stimulation to process, such as lights and decorations
Smell – different and often more intense smells, such as incense, perfumes, cooking, rich food to smell and taste.
Touch can be affected by new clothes, adornments, decorations and crowds
Sound – new and multi-layered sounds to process, such as crowds, background music, excited children, carol singers and brass bands.
Individuals with autism can find these sensory stimulations overwhelming and not at all pleasurable. Here are some tips to reduce sensory overload and to manage difficult situations:
Steer clear of crowds if you know this is a difficult situation
Keep decorations to a minimum
Avoid Christmas crackers
Offer structure to present opening – e.g. take turns opening gifts and restrict the number of gifts from each person
Use preferred therapeutic tools to reduce sensory overload – e.g. ear defenders, fiddles and weighted therapy.
Communication aids have been shown to reduce anxiety for people on the autistic spectrum. Big changes in routines such as going to events, parties and meeting new people can not only make the world appear chaotic and unpredictable, but can also place new social demands on the person which can lead to heightened levels of arousal and distress.
Good communication is vital in preparing for change; without the appropriate communication strategies those with autism can feel excluded and find the festive period stressful. Some strategies to use include:
Countdown calendars to visually communicate Christmas day and the events leading up it
Story boards to communicate changes in routines
Visual schedules to communicate daily routines and reduce the level of disruption
Christmas Makaton signs (Makaton is a sign and symbol language) to enable inclusion.
We wish you an autism friendly Christmas is just one of the many help sheets created by the Options Clinical Team offering advice and guidance for parents and carers who look after children, young people and adults with autism. If you would like to sign up to receive these help sheets via email, please complete the sign up form on the Options website https://www.optionsautism.co.uk/resources/
For further information about Option Autism, please visit www.optionsautism.co.uk. Options Autism is a division of Outcomes First Group, a leader in the provision of education and care for children and adults with autism, complex and Social Emotional and Mental Health needs (SEMH)