Autism and Christmas

Firstly, I would like to apologise for not posting for a couple of weeks-I rely on a Wifi dongle to blog when I am at work as the 3G coverage is so limited and, although it might be enough to browse Facebook for 5 minutes, it is nowhere near reliable enough to write and then submit a blog post. Unfortunately my Wifi dongle ran out of bandwidth for the month earlier than I was expecting it to. I am now back at my mum’s where there is Wifi so I am back to blogging again!

As Christmas Day is almost here, I thought it would be nice if I wrote a seasonal blog post about how people on the autistic spectrum cope with Christmas Day. Christmas Day can be very challenging for many people with autism and their families. A lot of people with autism struggle to cope with changes to routine and Christmas Day is so often unstructured with extra people coming for lunch and dinner. One simple thing that really helps is pre warning your relative with autism that there will be extra people for dinner for this one day and perhaps writing a social story based on relatives coming to celebrate Christmas with you. If you will be spending Christmas Day at somebody else’s house, again warn your relative with autism that this is what will happen but remember to consider carefully when you will let them know. Some people with autism like to know weeks in advance but, for others, letting them know so early will just cause extra stress and anxiety, particularly if they have no concept of time.

Presents can also be a huge issue for those of us on the spectrum. A lot of us don’t like surprises and I remember reading a recent post on a Facebook group about a mother whose son had asked his parents to take him shopping so he could buy his own Christmas presents, help to wrap them and then unwrap them the same day because he couldn’t cope with not knowing what he might get. There are some people with autism who enjoy receiving the same gift year after year because it is predictable and comfortable. This also combines with lacking the patience to wait, something else which a lot of people with autism experience. I have read stories of parents of children with autism having to ensure that new toys that require batteries have those batteries in place before the present is opened as their children simply don’t have enough patience to wait for batteries to be found and then placed in the toy. They want to play with the toy immediately and reject it instantly if it appears to be broken, sometimes experiencing meltdowns because they don’t understand why it doesn’t work. Others on the spectrum, like myself, have no problems with waiting for presents but struggle with thanking other people for them. I will thank someone for a present and genuinely mean it but this won’t translate to my facial expression and voice which will remain deadpan and monotone. It is difficult for people to understand that actually we are very grateful for our presents, just not always very enthusiastic about it!

Christmas decorations can be a source of sensory overload to many people on the spectrum. Bright and flashing Christmas lights, a variety of coloured baubles and tinsel that gets absolutely everywhere can be fun for lots of people, myself included, but, for people on the spectrum who are hypersensitive to visual stimuli, they can be a source of great distress. I am not advocating that all households with an autistic person or people living in them never put Christmas decorations up but perhaps leave your relatives bedroom plain of decoration and only have certain rooms of the house decorated so their exposure to stimuli is limited. For some children on the spectrum, indeed young children in general, Santa can be quite frightening. Some children with autism have strong aversions to facial hair and some have a strong fear, even to phobia levels, of a particular colour. If the particular colour that causes distress is red, you won’t have much luck getting them near Santa!

Another source of stress at this particular time of year for some people on the spectrum is Christmas dinner. As mentioned on this blog before, a lot of people with autism have a limited diet and are often described as fussy eaters. Some people with autism will happily sit down to a Christmas dinner with their families-others will refuse to break their usual eating habits for Christmas Day and follow their usual diet. My advice is not to engage in any battle that will leave both of you feeling more upset and stressed. If they won’t eat Christmas dinner, don’t force them. Christmas should be about families being together, rather than everybody eating the same thing.

Overall, I would recommend trying to make Christmas as peaceful and stress free as possible for yourself and/or the person you know with autism. If you are on the spectrum yourself, respect your limitations at this incredibly social time of year. If you know that the effort of going to a Christmas party and socialising all night will leave you exhausted and unable to function the next day, consider whether it is really necessary for you to go. If you have a relative or friend on the spectrum, listen to what they are trying to communicate to you about how much they can cope with and what they can or can’t tolerate. This simple act of respecting limitations can make the Christmas period a lot less stressful for everyone.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas if you celebrate it and Happy Holidays for those who don’t celebrate Christmas. I hope it all goes smoothly and I will be back next Monday for my last blog of 2014!

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