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Christmas is that time of the year when the streets get busier, loud music is playing and everywhere is lit up. Whilst this atmosphere can be exciting for many, the festive season can be a turbulent period for children who have autism. It can be a trigger for anxiety, stress and sensory overload. The festivities usually require children to spend more time sitting still and are expected to stay quieter for longer periods e.g. during shows and religious services. These can be struggles for all children but especially for those who have autism. The display of lights, bells ringing and loud Christmas carols can cause overstimulation which lead the child to feel uncomfortable. The following are a few tips on helping a child who has autism during the chaotic festival season.

  • Routine – Children with autism tend to benefit from having a fixed routine since they struggle to be flexible. Thus, knowing what to expect helps them to avoid feeling anxious. As much as possible try to stick to a familiar schedule which will include the Christmas activities. Prepare your child from beforehand about the changes so that they will have time to adapt. The use of visuals is helpful so that they know what to expect.
  • Physical contact – During the festivities we may be more inclined to hug and kiss others whilst wishing them well over Christmas or for the new year. Children with autism may not like other people touching them and they should not be forced to do so. Instead of focusing on changing your child’s way of being, try to make other people aware of what this condition entails. In this way, rather than being offended, they can understand better your child’s needs.
  • Safe space – Family lunches and dinners can be tricky as there is more noise and chaos. Children with autism might be unsettled in a crowded restaurant thus, eating at home may be more supportive. If you have people coming over or are going to a family member, find a spot designated as their safe space. If they start feeling overwhelmed they can retreat to this quiet space. Prepare some toys or activities they enjoy so that they can entertain themselves if they need to go on their own.
  • Light and sound – Decorations can be overwhelming for a child with autism as the lights and sound causes their senses to be overstimulated. Whilst decorating the house, try to avoid flashy lights, keep it simple. Also, try to decorate with your child, as if they find it already decorated, the house will suddenly start looking different to them and this will make it harder to adapt. If you will be going to places which are noisier than usual, tell them to wear either ear plugs or headphones whilst listening to some soft music to muffle the noise.
  • Gifts – Presents can be overwhelming. If your child gets overexcited that they have several presents to open, give them one present at a time perhaps on different days or times. If they do not like surprises, leave the gifts unwrapped.

In conclusion, whilst the festive season can be a fun and exciting time, for children with autism it can be overwhelming. With some support, as a family you can still enjoy this time of year.

Dr Marilyn Muscat is registered as an Educational Psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council in the United Kingdom where she trained. She works with children, adolescents and their families to understand more about educational, social and emotional well-being concerns that they have and to help them improve upon their difficulties. She can be contacted on marilyn@willingness.com.mt or call us on 79291817.