While most children look forward to Christmas, children with autism may not. The smell of a Christmas tree, the sight of blinking lights and the sound of too many shoppers talking at once at the mall may overstimulate autistic children. Parents can help their children cope by preparing them and letting them know what they can expect during the holiday season.
As a social worker who works with autistic children and adults, I’ve seen firsthand how difficult Christmas can be for people with autism. I also have family members with autism. I’ve learned a lot both personally and professionally to help children cope with autism and enjoy Christmas.
Santa Claus and Autistic Children
With his red suit, white beard and deep laughter, Santa Claus can be scary to children with autism. Many typical children without autism also fear him. I’ve seen children with and without autism have a meltdown while visiting Santa.
If you want to take your child with autism to visit Santa, be sure to prepare him ahead of time. Find a picture of Santa Claus and show it to your child once a day for at least a week. Tell him what a nice guy Santa is. Let your autistic child know he will visit Santa at least a day or two before making the trip.
When you take your child to visit Santa, go on a week night when the mall is less crowded. If Saturday is the only day you can go, then go early in the morning when less people will be shopping. Many autistic children don’t handle crowds well.
Keep in mind that even if your child is prepared to meet Santa Claus, he still may balk when he comes face to face with the jolly old elf. If that happens, stay calm, turn around and take your child home. Don’t raise your voice or get upset with the child for not wanting to meet Santa Claus.
Christmas Trees and Children With Autism
Many children with autism have sensory issues. They may experience smells, sounds or the feel of certain fabrics on their skin more strongly than other people do. Or they may experience these senses less strongly than other people do.
Christmas trees can cause sensory problems for a child with autism. The sharp, piney smell of a real tree may be too intense for an autistic child’s sense of smell. Blinking lights may be too distracting and stimulating for autistic children to look at. Just the sight of a tree inside a living room instead of outside may be troubling to children with autism. I’ve see children with autism have a meltdown just by seeing a Christmas tree in their living room.
Instead, get an artificial tree without the smell of pine. Use lights which stay on continuously and don’t blink on and off. A smaller tree may be less overwhelming to a child with autism.
Be sure to hang delicate Christmas ornaments on a high branch out of your child’s reach. Shiny, brightly colored ornaments may trigger sensory issues in your child. Some children with autism don’t like the fact that ornaments may reflect like a mirror.
When you decorate the tree and your house, let your child know what you are doing. He doesn’t have to participate but he will want to know what’s going on. Avoid decorating the house and tree when your child is away at school or other events. Coming home to a house decked out for Christmas can shock a child with autism.
Another solution is to put up a Christmas tree in a bedroom instead of a common area such as a living room. That way, your child doesn’t have to see the tree at all.
Stick to Routines During Christmas
Autistic children like their routines and have difficulty adapting when routines change. Holidays such as Christmas throw off a child’s normal schedule. Other events during the Christmas season such as shopping trips and holiday parties can disrupt your child’s routine.
Give your child plenty of notice when a party or shopping trip is coming up. Use a calendar to count down the days until the party and until the holiday itself. You can use an advent calendar or a regular calendar. Don’t forget to include events such as the day you decorate the tree and take it down.
Prepare for holiday dinners and parties by having your child practice sitting quietly at the dinner table, shaking hands with Grandpa and saying hello to relatives he or she hasn’t seen for a while. Ask the host ahead of time to allow you access to a quiet room where you can take your child if he or she becomes overwhelmed. On the day of the party, bring along a deck of cards. Many children with autism enjoy the feel of shuffling cards. Shuffling cards can head off a meltdown.
Try to stick to your child’s normal routine as much as possible during the holiday season. Have him eat dinner and go to bed at the usual times.
By planning ahead for the holidays, you and your child will be prepared for all the sights and sounds of the season. You’ll both have a merry Christmas – even if you have to keep the tree in the bedroom.
Sources: My experience working with children and adults with autism