Here are just a few tips we have used and found that have helped over the years. We hope they might help...
1. Ditch the sprouts – or whatever seasonal dish causes anxiety
Sensory issues around texture, taste and smell can be heightened for autistic people. Routine is also important, with some families telling us they plan a weekly menu that never changes. Throw in food you never eat any other time of the year and Christmas Day suddenly becomes frightening rather than fun.
Why not include a favourite dish on your Christmas menu or ditch the turkey altogether? Have a buffet rather than a sit-down meal. Try foods in advance and take the pressure off on the day.
2. Deck the halls with … whatever you like!
Tinsel, flashing lights, shiny baubles, musical Santas … for some autistic people this will be the sensory experience they long for. But for others it could cause a sensory overload leading to upset and even ill health.
Consider more muted decorations. Making paper chains will give you seasonal trimmings, double as a therapeutic family activity and can actually be soothing during increased periods of anxiety. Involving your family member in the process will also help build a sense of safety.
3. Preparation is everything
A tool widely used to help autistic children is a social story book. Using simple images it will explain what’s going to happen and when, and can include possible scenarios like, ‘there may be lots of people… if there are we can wait in a quiet space.’
4. Be creative - and eco-friendly - with your gift wrapping
The feel and sight of paper, ribbons, bows and bells for some autistic people will be great – for others it could be an unwanted sensory assault. Making a swap between colourful papers to plain coloured fabric could eliminate the noise from ripping. It’s better for the budget and the planet.
You could also decorate brown paper with stamps or drawings. Again it will be instantly familiar on Christmas morning.
5. Shop sensibly!
Do your homework beforehand. Find out which stores have an autism quiet hour, or just when that particular store is quietest. Call in advance and ask if it’s possible to wander before the tills open and you may even consider going on a scouting mission first to identify routes to toilets, quiet rooms or areas, and proximity to car parks.
6. Get a code word
Even as adults, it can all be a bit much. In our house, we have a code word that lets everone know when space and time is needed to bring the over stimulation down. In our house we use 'melons'. once we hear that, we get somewhere calm and quiet and just wait until things have settled before charging off again.
7. Hatch an escape plan
Try keeping one room in the house Christmas free. Ban anything jingly, snuff out the cinnamon candles and create your own personal oasis. Whether it’s for yourself or a child, loved one or friend having a place to escape to is vital.
Before visiting friends or family, discuss the signals you will use when you sense it’s time to go. An unspoken gesture could stop your child becoming upset.
8. Make like Bear Grylls and prepare a survival pack
In a rucksack or bag the child is familiar with, pack any comforters used at home along with favourite snacks and drinks, social stories, clothes they are happy to change into if necessary, toys and tablet devices, ear defenders and ear phones.
One adult told us they also use this technique to navigate social gatherings where they know little or no people. In his bag he keeps snacks so he can eat at parties rather than refusing food and has in-ear plugs to soften loud noises.
9. You can choose your family …
Well, maybe not, but you can choose when you see people and when you protect your time and health. For autistic people social gatherings can be hugely stressful and confusing. Why not pre-arrange when people visit – and at the same time put a time limit on the visit? And remember that your own family nucleus is just as important as wider family.
10. Embrace tradition and switch off social media
One of the most beautiful things about Christmas is the sense of tradition, so why not make some of your own? Whether that’s pressies wrapped in fabric, a Christmas dinner of Chinese food or celebrating just for part of the day, the decision is yours. Just make sure it’s something you will look forward to next year.
Switch off social media so you can stop comparing your ‘behind the scenes’ with everyone else’s highlight reel and focus on what makes a great Christmas for YOU.