I’ve shared before the challenges we face when it comes to Christmas as an autism family. Gift giving can be a minefield, sensory overwhelm can derail the most longed-for outing and the traditional Christmas myths can prove problematic.
Even the traditional Santa photo can be hard to manage!
This can lead to the entire holiday season being a time to be feared, rather than a time to celebrate, for many fellow autism families (including ours).
When you add end of school stress on top of all this, it just makes everything that much harder.
For us, we’ve just finished a long and emotional year. Gilbert survived his first year of high school. In fact, he thrived, making new friends, finding his classes independently, developing relationships with new teachers and learning how to plan and organise his work (although this is always going to be a work in progress!)
While he struggled with anxiety and started each day with a healthy dose of school refusal, he’d be bouncing along, in very good spirits, when I picked him up from school, ready with all sorts of stories about his day. He’d rarely tell me what he learned that day, but I would always get a blow by blow description of the questionable activities and choices of his classmates!
He’d never admit it to me during the year, but I knew he actually enjoyed school. Despite his ever-present fears, he enjoyed spending time with his social group friends and he thrived in an environment more geared to learning. The comments in his end of year report confirmed this and he even acknowledged this in the last days of school, overwhelmed with all sorts of big emotions, as he realised he had indeed completed his first year of high school.
So, we’re nursing him through to Christmas as he slowly processes all his feelings. We’ve learned from past experience that it will take a while for him to do this, so we’re giving him space so he remains as calm and comfortable as possible.
Meanwhile, Matilda is going through what every Year 6 student experiences at the end of their primary school years. She’s feeling a sense of loss and sadness at leaving a school she’s been familiar with for 7 years. At the same time, she’s also feeling a mixture of excitement, trepidation and fear as she looks ahead to high school.
All last week I was expecting a meltdown. I knew it was an inevitability, especially as we had a series of school and social events to attend to celebrate the end of Year 6. I’d sat her down and talked about what to expect and told her she could pull out of any of these events at any time.
However, she surprised me with her resilience, determination and strength. She attended her graduation ceremony, her Year 6 dinner and her clap out (although she very nearly missed out on that, as she was too busy playing on the computer to pay attention).
She also made it to the class pool party and her drama Christmas party too.
Matilda’s very big final week of primary school
However, once we got to Friday, it was all too much. I got her out of school early to organise her high school uniform and to have afternoon tea with her to celebrate, but the emotions finally hit with full force. Since then, we’ve tried to give her space so she can also work through her emotions.
Like her brother, it will take some time for her to do that. However, the challenge isn’t yet over – we still have Christmas to come.
So, this is how we do Christmas as an autism family. To ensure our kids are as comfortable as possible as they come to terms with the end of the school year and the end of the calendar year too.
- We slow down in the lead up to Christmas. We rarely socialise or go to parties as a family, we limit outings and we pay attention to our kids’ needs. This doesn’t mean we don’t have fun, it just means we do it in a slower, more deliberate way. We only accept invitations when we think the kids will enjoy it and won’t be overwhelmed and we ensure there is a break between events to give them a chance to recover. It works for us as we all have the chance to enjoy ourselves while limiting overwhelm and stress in our family. Believe me, it’s no fun taking your kids out when they’re unhappy and unable to cope…
- We don’t feel the need to do everything as a family. We’ve found that it’s impractical for us to do everything together at such a busy and stressful time of year. One or more of the kids will usually be reluctant to come on outings so it’s not unusual for us to divide and conquer. One of us will stay at home while the other heads out and we leave it up to the kids to choose whether they stay or go. Nathan and I also attend events individually in the lead up to Christmas, so we can celebrate with our own friends and colleagues. This approach is the best way we’ve come up with to balance all our needs in the lead up to Christmas.
- We have a Christmas routine. Nathan and I would LOVE to go away for Christmas but it’s more important to us that the kids feel comfortable so they can enjoy the holiday season. So, we have a Christmas routine that we follow every year. We spend Christmas Eve at home, watching carols on the TV and leaving thank you gifts for Santa. On Christmas morning, we open presents and spend a quiet morning at home, before visiting their grandparents for lunch and dinner. We also have a little celebration for their teddies (the inspiration for my kids’ online names – Gilbert, Matilda and Delilah) as they each received their bear on their first Christmas – which makes Christmas Day their birthday too.
- We stick close to home in the days following Christmas. We don’t go anywhere near shopping centres in the days following Christmas, no matter how good the Boxing Day sale bargains! It’s just not worth the crowds, noise, stress and strain. We also delay any planned holidays or outings so the kids have time to enjoy their presents and decompress from the excitement of Christmas. In fact, Gilbert only tolerates going out of the house on Christmas Day because he knows we’ll stay home after that so he can watch the Boxing Day Test cricket in peace!
For us, it’s all about helping our kids cope with the changing nature of the holiday season. Christmas, combined with the end of the school year and the end of the calendar year, is just too much. There are so many events, experiences and activities and the ‘noise’ of competing priorities can be overwhelming, even for us as parents.
The changes to routine, to expectations and to daily activities, such as the end of school and the start of the school holidays, takes an unbelievable toll on our kids. It’s no wonder this time of year results in more challenging behaviour as well as increased anxiety.
We’ve learned to do Christmas more slowly and deliberately. To pick and choose what we get involved in and to always watch our kids for signs of stress and strain. It’s what works for us, to ensure we all have a chance to enjoy the silly season as an autism family.
So, how do you do Christmas?