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Christmas and the Autism Spectrum – how to enjoy it! Amanda Abel, Paediatric Psychologist

All kiddos are different, and whether or not your littlie has additional needs of the diagnosed variety, or just has his or her own special quirks, you may have mixed feelings about the upcoming festivities! Try some of these ideas:

  • Ditch tradition if it doesn’t work for your family. If anxieties are triggered by decorations around the house, the thought of a strange man (Santa!) heading down the chimney, the sound of Christmas crackers, or the smell of a real tree – consider adapting your style.
  • If your child struggles with the anticipation or unknown associated with wrapped gifts, don’t wrap them. You could even have toys already set up with batteries etc., to avoid extra anxiety and waiting on Christmas morning.
  • Consider how sleep patterns can be impacted with social events. Say ‘no’ if it’s getting too much for your children (which of course impacts you as parents because tired, grumpy kiddos equals grumpy parents!). Be firm with your boundaries and accept that some family members or friends will not understand how much a late night can negatively impact your family functioning.
  • Give yourself permission to do things your way. If this means only staying for one hour at Christmas lunch at grandmas, then so be it. One ‘good’ hour is better than a day that turns into a downward spiral of over-stimulation, tiredness and way too many sugary treats!
  • Decreased routine means you need to increase structure. This might look like visual schedules, reminders about rules, reward charts and stick to the rituals that comfort your child (i.e. keep your nighttime routine even if you’re sleeping over at auntie’s house; keep your mealtimes regular etc).
  • Be prepared when going out and about as things tend to take longer at this time of year – carry some sensory toys or download some apps on your phone to keep the kids entertained. Planning to prevent boredom will decrease challenging behaviours.
  • Plan for rest. Rest before you go out for an overstimulating event and plan for some winding down time when you get home. Don’t expect your child to be able to go straight from driving around looking at Christmas lights to coming home and tucking himself into bed.

Please take some time over the next week or so to consider what is ‘painful’ for your family over Christmas. Isolate these areas (maybe its the wrapped presents, or lack of presents for non-Christmas celebrators, bright lights on the tree, stressed out parents, increased social demands…) and decide how you’re going to manage them. Think outside the square and do what works for your family, not what appears to work for everyone else.

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Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist with over 16 years’ experience working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and their families. She founded the Northern Centre for Child Development in Preston (Melbourne) and has recruited an exceptional multi-disciplinary team to help improve the quality of life for children with ASD.

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