We often assume that everyone who celebrates Christmas adores it. After all, what's not to love? Family time, good food, sharing gifts and endless socialising. However, this is not always the case. The festive period can be overwhelming for the autistic people in your life.
In this short article, we will delve into some of the reasons why and explore how you, as non-autistic family members, friends, or partners, can help make Christmas (just a bit more) autism friendly.
Why Can Christmas be Challenging for Autistic People?
One of the main reasons the festive period can present challenges for autistic people is routine change. Autistic people often depend on routines to navigate life. Changes, such as school holidays or varied work schedules, can be confusing, and anxiety-inducing.
Surroundings transform during the festive period – Christmas decorations, lights, and altered home layouts can be disruptive and induce sensory overload.
Christmas brings more surprises – from unexpected gifts to surprise guests, the unpredictability is often difficult for autistic people to manage. Understanding behavioural expectations in these situations can also be challenging, particularly if the autistic person is already over-stimulated and exhausted, for example, reacting appropriately to receiving a surprise gift in public.
People tend to be more tactile “just because it's Christmas”; hugs, kisses, and increased socialising are expected. Neurotypical socialising can be exhausting for autistic individuals, especially large group gatherings and games.
It's important to remember that it's not just Christmas Day and Boxing Day that present challenges – it's the whole lead-up to Christmas, as well as the aftermath (New Year). That’s a tough few months for autistic people.
Now that we understand some of the challenges, what changes can we make to ensure Christmas is (just a bit more) autism-friendly?
Nine Tips to Make Christmas (Just a Bit More) Autism Friendly
Clear Plans: Communicate festive plans clearly, and well in advance. Ensure these plans include sufficient rest time for the autistic person. Calendars and visual aids can be helpful to reinforce routine changes and create a little more predictability. Remember that the festive period lasts far longer than just a few days.
No Pressure to Open Gifts: Allow autistic people to open gifts at their own pace and in their own space.
Provide Clear Guidance Around Gifts: Be direct about what gifts you're giving, removing the stress of surprise. Where gifts are being exchanged, setting a mutually agreed budget and providing wish lists can be helpful too.
Create Quiet Zones: Have areas in your home without Christmas decorations or lights.
Avoid Dress Codes: Don't enforce wearing certain types of clothing such as Christmas jumpers or hats.
Respect Personal Space: Avoid forced physical contact like hugs. You can always ask if someone would like a hug – just don’t show any offence if they say no
Consider Smells: Overpowering scents from candles or food can be off-putting. Maintain a neutral-smelling environment where possible
Offer Food Options: If possible, provide alternatives to traditional Christmas food to accommodate sensory sensitivities.
Consider Skipping Crackers: The loud noise of crackers can be distressing for some autistic people.
Remember, every autistic person is unique. Consider their individual needs, preferences, and sensitivities. Open conversations and shared decision-making will go a long way in creating an inclusive and enjoyable Christmas for everyone.