Surviving Christmas (Tips for Autistic Families)

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! (Can you even read this sentence without singing it?!)

Neighbourhoods lit up like the Hallmark movies. 

Mailboxes filled with Christmas greetings. 

Trees covered in ornaments passed down over the years. 

Beautifully decorated homes smelling of Mr. Clean and homemade fruit cake.

(Well, maybe I’m pushing on the imagery just a tad on that last one. Anyone who knows me knows there is a slim chance of coming to my home and being greeted by the smell of homemade Christmas cakes and cookies.)

My favourite picture of the boys with Santa

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

That’s what it’s supposed to be, right?

The most wonderful time. 

The reality is though, Christmas can be hard for many people – those experiencing grief, those estranged from loved ones, those unable to come home for Christmas.

Christmas can also be hard for many autistic families.

We all want the time with family and friends, the beautifully decorated house, the freshly baked cookies for Santa, the perfect gift.

The expectation of Christmas is bigger than Christmas itself.

Christmas is filled with so many traditions – for some, it’s church on Christmas Eve, for others it’s having all the family over for Christmas dinner. 

But for many autistic families, these Christmas traditions may be out of reach.

Many autistic children struggle with change, whether to their routine or simply their surroundings which are now covered in Christmas spirit.

They may not be able to participate in many of the traditions families look forward to like breakfast with Santa or the Christmas parade.

They may not ‘do well’ when they have a house full of people, even when it’s family. 

So, what should we do? 

Bar up our houses, turn off the lights and wait for Christmas to be over.

It’s a thought …. (just kidding)

But we may need to make some adjustments to help our kiddos get through the holidays.

Here are my tips for surviving Christmas:

Community Events

Choose the Right Activity

For us, at this moment, going to a crowded event does not work. Tyson doesn’t do lineups and doesn’t like noise, so it can be challenging to take in most community events. So we tend to go for drives to look at the Christmas lights or take a stroll through Christmas lit parks. There is no pressure on Tyson and we can leave whenever we need to.

Festival of Lights in Bowring Park

Seek out your Local Organizations

This year for the first time the Autism Society offered a breakfast with Santa at the Pantry. There were only three families in the restaurant at any one time and the staff was very accommodating. We were even allowed to bring in our own food for Tyson. And the best part was the other families there were just like us. They didn’t stare or get upset when Tyson decided to lie on the floor and cry. They get it! And in case you have never been, the food at the Pantry is delicious.

Tyson using his communication iPad to say ‘Santa’.

Be prepared

I always pack snacks that Tyson will like, his communication device so he can tell us when he wants to go home, and noise-canceling headphones if he gets overwhelmed. And I always dress for success. Me dressing for success is comfortable footwear that I can easily run after Tyson in, if I need to and layered clothing. I get easily irritated when I’m overheated so I would never wear one of those ugly Christmas sweaters taking Tyson anywhere, ever.

Try, try, again

Just because an event didn’t work for your family in the past, that doesn’t mean you won’t have success this year. If a particular Christmas event or tradition is important to you, then keep trying.

Change your Perspective

Success may mean different things for different families. Attending a Christmas party for 30 minutes could be a great goal for a child who has difficulty leaving the house. Make realistic goals. And stick to your plan.

Tyson deciding he is done with pictures at Bowring Park.

Family and friends

Navigating family at Christmas time can be particularly challenging. You want to spend time with them but having a house full of people can be overwhelming for your child.

Get-Togethers

Have a plan and let individuals know your plan ahead of time. If you can see that your child is nearing a meltdown, don’t wait for it to happen, let your host know you have to leave. If family and friends are aware in advance, then there is no surprise if you are heading out the door just as they are taking up the meal.

Meals

Our family gets Tyson and so they know he is not going to eat turkey dinner just because it’s Christmas Day. He eats the same chicken nuggets on Christmas Day as he does the other 364 days of the year. However, not all autistic families share this level of understanding and acceptance. Having a conversation with family and friends may help individuals understand and so there will be no surprise on the day of. I would also suggest bringing your child’s own specific food/snacks so there is no added pressure on your host.

Gifts

What does one get the child that does not play with toys for Christmas? The struggle of buying Tyson presents for Christmas has been painstaking real from the age of two until last year. Now he shows us new books and DVDs he wants every single day.

Family can especially struggle with this as traditionally children get toys for Christmas. But a present for a child does not have to be a toy. It should be what that child likes, however unusual that may be. Or for kiddos who have no interest in opening gifts, maybe suggest contributing to an activity the child is enrolled in.

Set up a schedule

Give everyone who plans to see you on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day a time to drop by. Yes, it’s awkward and uncomfortable to have the conversation as they are your family but it will save you from having 15-20 people all in your house at the one time. 

Or if you are not quite brave enough for that, then …

Control the Day

We used to have everyone come to us but we have learned it is better for us to come to them, that way we can control the situation. When Tyson is ready to leave, we can go. Or sometimes we go in two cars so one of us can leave with Tyson and the other parent can stay with Lincoln.

Home

Do ‘less’ Christmas

If your child thrives on their surroundings looking the same at all times, just imagine how overwhelming Christmas can be. The tree, the lights, the decorations – it’s sensory overload. 

I will put up my tree but leave my other decorations to later in December. In recent years, I have also put out less of my Christmas collection. You can also leave an area of your home Christmas-free for when your kiddo needs a break from all that Christmas spirit. 

Tyson ‘taking a break’ from Christmas Day in his Christmas free zone.

Consistent bedtime

As hard as it can be to maintain a schedule during Christmas, keeping your routine of consistent bedtime and wake-up time will help your child. The last thing you need is an overstimulated AND tired child.

Self

Mourn what you miss

It’s okay to miss Christmas traditions and feel a little sad because you are missing out. I’m always super cranky around the time of the annual Downtown Santa Claus Parade because I hate missing it but I know, we just can’t do it as a family right now. The last time we went to the parade Tyson was in a stroller. But I let myself feel the feelings and then I move on. It’s okay to feel angry and sad sometimes about what we are missing, that’s what makes us human.

Downtown Santa Parade 2015

Fill your Christmas Bucket

I always make it a point to do some things that I enjoy to put me in the Christmas spirit. Nothing quite gets me in the spirit as out and about shopping in stores looking for the perfect gift all while listening to their Christmas music blaring. For others, this might be getting their hair or nails done or going out for a nice meal with friends. This year I attended a Christmas performance at the Arts and Culture Center.

Me and Lincoln at Merry and Bright

Hey moms and dads, please share your tips for helping to get your kiddo through the holidays? I would love to hear them.

Published by Amanda

My name is Amanda - welcome to my personal blog. I have been married for 15 years to my husband, Mark and together we have two lovely boys - Lincoln and Tyson. This blog is an expression of my thoughts, feelings, and everyday adventures raising a child on the spectrum. It is my hope that it will give others a glimpse into the life of an autism mom.

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