Kids love Christmas, don’t they? You’d think so, but for many children with autism or other disabilities, it’s often edged with anxiety. Too many choices, too many Christmassy TV ads on TV, bright lights and jangly music on the streets and even the festive Christmas tree at school are a constant reminder of the big day ahead. It's easy for them to get so wound up and all that energy is just waiting to explode like a shaken bottle of pop.
Many parents, including us with our two ASD sons, have experienced the horror of a Christmas meltdown in a busy shopping centre. We soon learned our lesson to stay clear. With one son having an early December birthday, we also made a rule of no Christmas until after then, which helped cut the chaos.
Now our boys are grown, we are well-used to ignoring that unpleasant grating noise that is the sound of our bank balance creaking under the strain of a kid’s Christmas. However, since they became teenagers, mindful of the need to teach them the value of money management, we’ve given them a budget to stick to as they trawl the pages of online stores.
Our older son easily chose things he wanted right up to the penny of the sum we’d allocated to him. Our younger son, meanwhile, desperately wanted a gaming computer and the budget wouldn’t cut it for the spec he wanted. This inadvertently caused him a lot of anxiety as he searched the net to find something to fit the bill.
Eventually, he played a blinder and opted to pick computer components to his liking and build his own, powerful, but way cheaper, machine that came in under the amount allotted. We wrapped each component separately, which he appreciated very much.
With our experiences in mind, here are seven tips for Christmas week to keep you sane this year.
Seven tips for a calm Christmas for children with special needs
- Pick a date: As we did, impress upon your children a date that Christmas prep will start to keep the run-up under control. Maybe from the day of the school Christmas party, or a week before if possible. You can’t prevent them seeing it all around them, but reminding them that your family puts the tree up on a certain date and that’s when Christmas may help keep levels manageable.
- Shop online: You may love the thrill of a Christmas shop, but when you have autism the lights, noisy tunes, stress of queuing to see Santa and the intense crowds are a big NO. Never take them shopping on a Saturday in the run-up to Christmas. With the internet, there is rarely a need to do this and that goes double if there is a wheelchair involved – in our house, I am a wheelchair user for shopping trips and am also autistic, so I can speak from experience that this combination is Christmas hell. Shopping online means you can find the best prices, get it delivered to you and best of all, you can do it any time you can snatch a moment, even in your PJs at 2am. We set up Amazon Universal Wish Lists (Amazon Assistant now) up for our boys so they could add whatever caught their eye from anywhere online. Then they could edit it if they changed their mind so we could see what they were thinking about. Not that they'd always get it, just because it was on there, but it helped us to help them to make decisions.
- Manage expectations: Times are tough for many of us and while we want our kids to have their heart’s desire, it’s better to find a way to keep their ambitions your-budget-sized. When the child has a learning disability this can be very hard, especially if they have little concept of cost. A good way is to pick present categories, for example, a reading present, a creative present, something to wear, sweetie present, a game and a toy present – all depending of course on what you can afford. This can really help concentrate minds and simplify the situation for those who find choice too much.
- Keep the routine going: Over Christmas, the routines that your child depends upon for keep anxiety levels in check can be difficult to maintain. I have always found that sticking to the regular bedtime and waking routine – even if it’s moved a little later on each side – works best. I’ve found it ‘grounds’ them knowing what happens at the start and end of each day, whatever day it is. Maintaining sleep hygiene also minimises getting over-tired and, in turn, can help to manage moods.
- Manage visitors: Always choose the option that’s best for your disabled child, when it comes to having visitors or travelling to see family, unless you are certain that they will be helpful and understanding. The last thing you need is the relative who doesn’t know when to leave or getting stressed overseeing family members who think they know how to parent your child better than you do.
- Accept imperfection: Does it matter if things go wrong on Christmas day? They always make the best stories for the future anyway. Keep it simple, manageable and serve up the Christmas that everyone enjoys.
- Remember what Christmas is about: In all the hubbub and commercialism on TV and social media, it's easy to forget that the Christmas message is one of peace and goodwill to all. Whatever your faith, or none, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, it is a message worth sitting down with your children and talking about or raising over the dinner table in the run-up to the big day. Just a simple, "What do you think Christmas is about?" is a good question to start with. Reminding them that not everyone gets presents because of their faith or circumstance can open up a great conversation, if they are able to talk. If not, use picture books or read or listen to stories that reinforce that kindness, tolerance and thoughtfulness is just as important as sparkles and mince pies.
What are your tips for a calm Christmas?
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Later in the week, we'll have Jo Grace's Christmas shopping list for Sensory Beings!)