It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Bright, colorful lights, Christmas music playing everywhere, crowds of people in all the stores, and lots and lots of holiday cheer. All of these things can either make your Christmas amazing, or it can cause some hiccups – and maybe even a little chaos when you have a family member with autism. When a child has sensory issues, all of the things can make planning an autism-friendly Christmas a little bit daunting. Don’t worry though, it is doable!
Tips for Planning an Autism-Friendly Christmas holiday
Note: I am on the autism spectrum, and my child is as well. These are tips based on my experience. Every person with autism will have different “quirks” (I love that word!), and triggers. It's important to keep an open mind during each individual situation.
I am going to talk here about some tips for planning an autism-friendly Christmas. First though, I want to mention that I think that there are several angles that need to be looked at when planning an autism-friendly Christmas. One angle is for those that live with someone who is on the spectrum and the other will be for those of us who are hosting Christmas and will have a guest with autism joining us for Christmas. Are you an autism parent? You probably have some tips you can add to this post! Please leave a comment below!
Regardless if we live with someone on the spectrum, or we plan to host one at our Christmas celebration (maybe you're dating someone with autism?), we all know that our loved ones on the spectrum deserve to have a great Christmas, just like everyone else does! Let’s do all that we can to make that happen.
Keep in mind that someone on the spectrum is likely to be on edge already going into a holiday gathering. These tips for planning an autism-friendly Christmas can help you to help them enjoy themselves and not deal with unnecessary stress.
Keep your routines as consistent as possible
I know it’s hard to stick to routines with the busy holiday schedules, but you will find the most success by keeping your routines as consistent as possible. I am not rigid with my routine by any means, our house is pretty chill actually… but we ALL have to know “what's next”. When plans change, I immediately panic.
loathe despise hate detest when plans change. If someone says they will be here at 5PM and we will eat at 5:30, I get extremely fidgety when 5:30 rolls around and people still aren't here. When you say you're serving turkey but at the last minute swap it out for ham, I've been planning exactly what I will eat all week – obsessively – so you can't just change it to ham!
Not everyone is like this with routines and plans, but it's a well-known autism “quirk” that we like routines. 🙂
Skip the multi-colored and/or blinking lights
Not only for people on the spectrum, but anyone with a seizure disorder or migraines can be triggered by multi-colored or blinking lights. My daughter has a condition called Pseudotumor Cerebri. She is very prone to migraines and we have to be extremely careful about lights. She can't even go to a concert because of all the strobe lights etc. 🙁 Christmas lights are the same way, so be mindful when inviting guests over that may be triggered by them.
Different types of lights can affected those with sensory issues. Stick with white lights or another solid color string of lights. Use dimmer switches on your tree lights so that you can turn down the brightness. The idea is to keep the lights simple.
Turn down the music
Loud music can be too much for anyone, let alone a child with sensory issues who is probably already on edge. Keep the music at a level low enough that you can have a conversation over it without issue.
No strong scents
While I absolutely loooovvvve the smell of cinnamon, and equally love when I walk into someone's home and it smells like Febreze, not everyone shares my enthusiasm of scents. Again, not only for humans with autism but also for those with migraines. Sapphire is extremely sensitive to scents. We can't even use scented laundry detergent or it will trigger a migraine.
This means no strong scented pine cones, no fragrant wax melts, etc. Many people on the spectrum have a difficult time dealing with strong scents. If your house has a strong fragrance, open your windows and doors to air it out the day before you host your party.
Have a dedicated sensory-friendly meal for them during parties and celebrations
It is no secret that many autistic people struggle with food. Whether it’s the taste, or texture or whatever, it’s best to not have this battle when you don’t need to. I’m sure that you already do this in your day to day life, it definitely needs to be done during the chaos of the holidays as well.
How do we do this? Ask your guests if they have dietary restrictions, or food requests. The reason I added “food requests” is because if your guest ONLY eats chicken nuggets, for example, you can either make some or make sure their parents bring some to the party. No need to make them feel singled out – make it a dish everyone can eat.
That last sentence is really important to me. I live with chronic nausea and can only eat a few select foods. These foods also change day to day. Because of this, if I were invited to a holiday part, I'd ask if I could bring one of my safe foods. But I'd bring it as a dish for everyone – because it seems like everyone likes to comment on your food. What you're eating, if you're eating too much, what you're not eating… let's avoid those conversations this year. People don't need to be put on the spot like that. You really want me to explain my autism and chronic nausea over the dinner table? Not exactly what I want to talk about.
Create an autism-friendly safe space
Many humans on the spectrum need to have a space that they can call their own. This is especially true during holiday gatherings. If possible, keep one bedroom closed off and ready to be that safe space. Make sure that it’s close enough that you can easily check on them, but far enough away that they can get a break from the stimulus.
When I used to go to holiday gatherings, I would escape to the bathroom – frequently. Everyone thought I just had to poop a lot, I guess, but really, I was getting away from everyone because it was too loud. Too many people, too many different sounds, sounds of people eating, sounds of people talking, laughing, just so many noises! As an adult, I finally found my voice and asked to go to the spare room or guest room, or even the garage, to get away from everyone. It helped tremendously.
If I'm hosting a party, which literally never happens but I can dream, I will have a spare room set up with a cozy space so if anyone needs to get away from everything, they can. 🙂
Autism-friendly safe space ideas:
- stress balls (we make ours with balloons)
- calm down kit
- soft pillows and blankets
- quiet, relaxing music (that can be turned off if necessary)
Don’t force them into uncomfortable situations
You don’t want to be forced into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, right? People on the spectrum are no different. Don’t make them hang out in the crowds of people, don’t force them to sing the carols, don’t force them to do things that will trigger them. Give them space. Allow them activities that they are comfortable with.
Everyone has a different level of comfort in crowds, around loud noises, etc. We have to respect everyone as individuals instead of making blanket statements or forcing everyone to do the same thing. If your kiddo is too over-stimulated and doesn't want to be involved in watching other people open their Christmas gifts, find a safe space they can go to instead.
While we don't “coddle” our children too much, we do want to make sure they understand they are SAFE when they are in our presence. This includes making them feel safe at holiday events. They don't want to hug? DON'T MAKE THEM HUG! And this is for everyone – not just children on the spectrum.
Keep sentimental, valuable, and breakable ornaments and decor put up
I know that you really want to show off and admire your fancy Christmas decor, but I am pretty sure you would be sad if they got broken. Children don’t go into the holidays with plans to break your stuff, but things happen. You may as well do all that you can to avoid it. Again, this is for all children – not just those on the spectrum. 🙂
Create a solid plan for holiday outings
If you are planning to go on a holiday outing, make sure you map out your outing schedule and you plan well. If you have an older child that is on the spectrum let them help you shop and give them a job to do that is well within their abilities.
If your child is younger, bring snacks and activities that they will enjoy doing to keep them busy. Make sure that you don’t stay out too long so that they don’t get tired while out. Pay attention to their cues so you know if they are nearing a meltdown. You don’t want them to go through that in public.
Do not have any expectations
Holding strong to expectations in any holiday gathering, autism-friendly or not, can always backfire on you. Just go with the flow. Plan things out, but don’t stress if things go a little haywire. It won’t be the end of the world. Maybe this will be a good day and maybe not. Regardless, you need to try!
Hosting an Autism-Friendly Holiday Party
If you don’t live with someone on the spectrum, but you are hosting and are expecting a family member or friend who is on the spectrum, here are a couple of extra tips for you.
If you are expecting a child with autism at your holiday gathering, it is always best to reach out to the parents to ask about preferences. Make sure to ask what they like ahead of time. This can be in relation to the foods that you are preparing, the activities you have planned, and even what types of music would be best.
Find out what their triggers are and make sure these triggers are removed from the space that the festivities will take place in. The parents will be thrilled that you asked. Chances are, they are already stressed about the upcoming festivities and knowing that you are taking their child’s needs into consideration will make them feel much better.
Do not get offended
People on the spectrum are not fully aware of social cues and they tend to be very blunt and speak their mind. Do not get offended about anything that they may say to you. Don’t be surprised if they say that they don’t like your cooking, or your hair, or your house, or the gift you have given them. It is nothing personal, so please don’t take it as such.
Keeping your response minimally emotional is important, especially in kiddos that are easily triggered into meltdowns. It's difficult with adults with autism because it's like an “oh you can dish it but can't take it” type of thing because they were blunt and you want to say a snide comment in return. It's not like that, though – most of us don't even realize what we are saying is considered “blunt” or rude. To top it off, we're also extra sensitive at time! When you respond to blunt comments, try to soften the blow a bit rather than helping it turn into a chaotic tornado of emotions.
That doesn't mean you should let anyone run all over you, even if they are on the spectrum. Set clear boundaries and stick with them – but handling the situation with “kiddie gloves” (that's what my kid's call it lol) is going to benefit everyone. 🙂
My grandma always said EVERYTHING that came to her mind. My mom was horrified by this, and equally horrified when I turned out exactly like grandma. It wasn't until I was older that I understood why. Autism wasn't a diagnosis back then, but I am 99% certain grandma was on the spectrum.
Do not try and correct them
Most people get upset when you try to parent or correct their children. This will be worse than that I promise you. Parents of autistic children are used to these situations, let them deal with any situations that may occur. They have spent years trying to learn how to treat situations with their autistic children. You trying to correct them on behaviors will likely only result in a meltdown.
If you must do something, offer help – not criticism.