As Christmas looms ever closer many of you may be feeling the pressure of Santa’s foot upon you. Whether you have autism yourself and find the season of goodwill an ever burdening stressor, or whether you are dealing with a child with autism who finds the festivities overwhelming, Christmas needn’t be wished away. It may be hard for others to understand how such a jolly season can be so hellish to some, but really it can beat the best of us. I am a lover of ‘Christmas’ and the whole package, except for excruciating Christmas music. However, as the day nears ever closer I feel my blood boiling quicker, with meltdowns much closer to the surface than they are the rest of the year, not to mention the month of recuperation needed afterwards. And it’s not just us autistic folk that suffer; Christmas can be a stressful time for anyone. Over the years I’ve taught myself how to cope with the season and not fall out of love with it, the following is what has helped me through.
Create customs to be used every year
This is really about routines. Your child may not be able to verbalise this to you, and indeed even an adult with autism may not be aware of it, but one of the key reasons Christmas is so stressful is that it involves a big change in routine. The kids are out of school for the first time properly since the summer, many have only just adjusted to starting a new school year or even a new school altogether, the adults are out of work, people are floating around but unable to relax, the TV schedule changes, the shops have weird hours, the food is different, everything has changed! One way round this is to create a special kind of routine, one that comes out every year at the same time, so even when the usual routine is thrown out the window for two weeks, the ‘special routine’ can take control. It might mean always putting the Christmas decorations up the same time each year, maybe the start of December so there is more time to become accustomed to the idea of what’s happening, or taking the children to a special Santa’s Grotto at the same place and time each year, or even much smaller customs such as baking nice foods on Christmas Eve, having Christmas dinner at the same time each year, opening presents in the same way each year. The key is EACH YEAR STAYS AS MUCH THE SAME AS POSSIBLE.
This may seem obvious, and it’s something I think pretty much everyone intends to do and most probably don’t get round to, but it’s also very important. If you know that the closer to Christmas you get the more stressed you become, it’s imperative that you have as few stressful jobs to do during that time as possible. This is particularly true for Christmas shopping and food organising but also for things you don’t think of. If you have lots of work to do over the season, don’t even contemplate being able to concentrate and get it done during those two weeks. Get going early, leave the most stressful period free of extra stressors. As I was once repeatedly told by an otherwise completely clueless Support Worker, everyone has a bucket full of stressors and each new obligation or stress adds to the bucket. Well Christmas pretty much fills your bucket up to the top without anything else, just the word alone, so anything else is going to overflow the bucket.
Plan and control social events
At no other time of the year are you expected to be around and socialise with so many people in such a short period of time! Even if it’s family you see fairly regularly, for a person with ASD this is still a strain. It’s difficult to avoid this altogether and also run the risk of offending close relatives and friends, but there is a way to keep it to a minimum. Plan all social events in advance, if any surprise ones come up you can confidently and guiltlessly say no. Always make sure there is a day of rest between social events. It’s tempting to just get them all out of the way with together, but this is multiplying the stress and pressure that will just take longer to recover from later, especially if you have a child with ASD who you are expecting to lug from one family party to another. You could even go as far as to say you will only go to two in a week and again guiltlessly turn down any other invitations, pick out the ones where the people you love most will be at. Don’t feel pressured to make other people happy at your expense. If there are too many people to see then politely tell them how stressful you find this time of year, then arrange to see them in January when it will be quieter. Better yet spread all the big social events throughout the year!
A quiet day
I cannot stress how having the ‘big day’ itself as quiet as possible can help. It’s like a treat for all that hard work. I have always enjoyed the day itself because I’ve always spent it at home with just my immediate family. It’s Boxing Day I find most stressful because this is when more people I’m less comfortable with get added to the mix. If you have a very sensitive child with ASD then I highly recommend making the 25th the ultimate chill out day, filled with everything they love and all the things they find hardest nowhere in sight
Eat, drink, sleep and be merry
I’m not talking Mince Pies and Mulled Wine here; I’m talking plenty of fruit, veg, water, and regular bed times. One of the reasons the change in routine can be so hard is that actually we physically struggle with the different things we put in our bodies and the lack of sleep we get to help us cope. A meltdown can be brought on by as little as a bit of indigestion and an hour’s loss of sleep, so stay ahead of the game and prepare your body. Sugar in particularly difficult and there’s plenty around this season. It gives you a high but following that a crashing low, and being up and down can be hard to tolerate with so much change around.
Most of this advice I give in retrospect and still struggle to follow, but I know it works and that it would help tremendously. I think particularly in you have a child struggling it is important to put these tactics in place early on, and understand they may not be able to tell you why they’re so stressed. One of the autistic children I work with recently woke up in the night shouting at his Mummy that he didn’t want any presents from Santa. He was so scared he didn’t know what was in them and that he couldn’t control how unpredictable and overwhelming this would be, he’d rather have none at all. There are so many different things at Christmas that could be stressful or upsetting for someone with ASD, when I was younger my Mum had a sparkly red apple decoration that use to make me feel sick to look at, and tinsel still makes me shiver, alas they no longer appear in our household. Getting it right and having the ‘perfect’ day can take years, but once you find it it’s definitely worth it. My main piece of advice is to embrace the bits you like and throw out what isn’t any good, and have a peaceful and happy Christmas.