It’s Christmas week, there’s still a load to do, you don’t feel in the least bit festive because you know there’ll be at least one Autism Meltdown on Christmas day, Right now all you want to do is to sit on the floor burst into tears and have a meltdown all of your very own.

Does this sound familiar? Pulling Christmas out of the bag from nowhere is relentless hard work and every year it costs more than any of us can really afford. We all try and create the absolutely perfect Christmas, and we put ourselves under an enormous amount of pressure trying to get everything “just so” to conform to our own ridiculously high expectations of the day itself.

When we have to factor in that our child has a disability, or autism, or a disorder or condition, everything seems a hundred times harder and a thousand times more stressful.

Here are some tips that might help in two sections – Meltdown and Anxiety First Aid Ideas and De-stressing strategies for parents.  As a bonus, all the pictures I’ve used can be printed out and used as Christmas Visuals.

Meltdown and Anxiety First Aid

  • This isn’t bad behaviour, it’s overwhelming distress, probably caused by sensory overload or something in your child’s world going horribly wrong for them – and they haven’t got the communication skills to explain. Stay calm, keep your voice gentle – sometimes singing helps. Your child needs to see that you’re in control and you understand how upset they are, a soothing voice and gentle body language will help them trust you to sort things out for them.

Christmas Present

  • Lead them away from other people or noise – or gently but firmly ask everyone else to leave the room. Brief people beforehand. If you think that it may be helpful to have another adult with you as back up make sure you’ve appointed someone to stay with you ahead of time, and ensure that the second person stays absolutely quiet and as still as possible. Right now your child will be struggling to take on board any extra stimulation, and two voices talking simultaneously is too much for them to cope with.

 Reindeer

  • Eye contact – your child may struggle with this, particularly in the middle of a meltdown or an anxiety attack. When talking focus very slightly away from their eyes. Eye contact can be very intense for children and adults on the spectrum.

 Turkey

  • Basically something has gone wrong for your child and they need your help to put it right. However sometimes it’s virtually impossible to work out what the problem is. If it’s obvious and easy to fix, you may be able to bring the meltdown or anxiety attack to a swift end, and delegate others to help sort it out if that will help resolve things quickly.

 Christmas Tree

  • Distraction can work wonders. If you can put together a “Calm Down Box” beforehand it can help enormously. Good things to include are things that will encourage deep breathing which in itself is very calming, things like bubbles to blow or whistles. Something to fidget with like a tangle is also great. We use odd socks for fidgeting – Toby will put his hands into and out of socks and watch his fingers wriggle inside as a calm-down mechanism. Putty is great – something to squeeze all that anger and distress out with. Something tactile – maybe a sponge or a soft piece of material. Something to chew on can help too – or even some of your child’s favourite sweets. Some children benefit from the noise being cut out so ear-muffs or ear-plugs might be a good idea to include too. A favourite soft toy is a great idea too – you know your own child best, so try to include things that are likely to work well for them. Don’t put anything heavy that could be used as a missile in there.

 Christmas Card

  • Prevention is the best strategy. Protect them as far as possible for unwanted hugs, kisses and touch from relatives. Prepare a “safe” area for them beforehand where they can retreat to if they feel it’s all becoming too much. It could be their own bedroom, a corner of the hall, or even underneath the dining table. Ensure that someone will prevent less autism-aware relatives from stepping in and inadvertently making things worse for your child.

 Father Christmas

  • A great “safe” space when you’re away from home is sitting in the car outside the house, but please make sure an adult is with them all the time.

Christmas Stocking

  • Moving from one activity to another can be very stressful for children with ASD. For example sudden demands to stop what they are doing and come immediately to the dining table can be very stressful. Use visual timetables and gradual transitions. Counting down slowly and gently from 10 to 1 can help too.

Family

Christmas lights

Christmas De-Stressing

 

  1.  If you’re not going to be at home for Christmas Day, talk with your hosts beforehand about all your concerns about behaviour and strategies that might help, and enlist their help. If they are unsympathetic or unwilling to support you and your child and you foresee problems, keep the visit as short as possible, or even rethink your Christmas plans altogether. Christmas shouldn’t be about setting your child up to fail, and then having to face extended family members tut-tutting about your parenting skills.
  2.  I’ve got some news for you – there is no such thing as a “Perfect Christmas”. The “cosy log-fire, happy-family” version was entirely manufactured by Hollywood and the TV companies. They are actors, being paid a good whack to smile and look happy, and it wasn’t even the real Christmas Day when they filmed it.
  3.  There is no law that states you have to aspire to this celluloid image of Christmas. You can do it the way that will suit your own family the best. You can cut whole chunks of the tradition out, you can develop new Christmas traditions all of your own, you can do it any way you want to. Lower your expectations – it’s not about pleasing extended family members or ensuring that there are the right type of fresh flowers and holly in a certain pattern on the table, nor is it about proving your culinary skills to the mother-in-law. You have special needs children, and you’re coping with more than most people can even imagine having to deal with. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.
  4.  What’s Christmas all about for you? Work out how you feel about it and what’s important to you. For me, it’s not about the tree or the presents or the food on the table, it’s about the whole family being happy spending time together and building memories for the children. If you feel the same, take that as your starting point and work out how to make that happen.
  5.  Think of each member of your immediate family in turn and try and work out which bits of Christmas they absolutely adore, which bits they might take or leave, and which bits might cause difficulty – a meltdown or real anxiety. The way I do this is to make a list of absolutely everything to do with Christmas, the tree, the decorations and lights on it, the food, the food shopping, the presents, the wrapping of them and the unwrapping, the stockings, where the Christmas cards should go – the absolute lot – everything I can think of. Then I use a different felt tip for each member of the family and I read through the list each time with a different member of the family in mind and I use a number system – 1 for their best bits, 2 for the aspects of Christmas they don’t seem bothered by and 3 for the Christmas elements that are likely to cause real problems. At a glance you can then see the bits you can stop worrying about and maybe cut out altogether, and the bits that might be tricky.
  6.  There are way around things if you use your imagination and you don’t have to produce a “one size fits all” Christmas either. For instance you may have one child may be terrified at the concept on a strange man creeping into their bedroom at night whilst another one might love it. You can tell your children that because Father Christmas knows every child really well he does what each child loves best, and that gets around why one child has a stocking at the end of their bed whilst another one has theirs left by the tree.
  7.  Is your child sensitive to lights, and if so, will they react badly to the lights on the Christmas tree? Buy some that don’t flash, or that are all red or all blue – your child may be less affected by uniformity of colour or by certain colours. Conversely – they may love flashing lights – it’s a case of using trial and error to find out what your child likes and can tolerate. Taking them to a shopping centre at this time of year, when every shop has a differently decorated Christmas Tree, might help you see which lights they tolerate best. You may feel torn – you may want lights on the tree for your other children to experience, but you can compromise. Maybe the tree can go in the hall or on the landing – there is no rule that says it has to be centre stage in the living room in every house. Or you could have the lights on for short periods while your sensitive child is doing something else in another room, or organise the seating in the room so that your sensitive child can be sat with the flashing lights behind them.
  8.  Also on sensory issues – a real Christmas tree has a distinctive smell that may trigger difficulties. So to heck with tradition and go with an artificial one instead. It’s also a hundred times easier. For years I kept up the tradition of a real Christmas tree but a few years ago I bought a very basic artificial one and I absolutely love it! There is no trauma in bringing it home and carrying it into the house, then finding a way to make it stand up straight. There are no needles anywhere for weeks on end, if it gets knocked over accidentally (that happens a lot in our house) it’s so lightweight that it’s unlikely to cause injury, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg!
  9.  We now have a tradition of waiting until Christmas Eve afternoon to put up our Christmas Tree. Toby gets so excited about Christmas that to do so earlier would be really difficult. The excitement boils over into meltdown really quickly, and for us, to have a tree up several days earlier would cause real problems.
  10.  For the same reason, we never put any Christmas presents under the tree until I’m serving up Christmas Dinner, and then everyone opens them between Dinner and Christmas Pudding. Toby loves unwrapping presents and one year he escaped from the dining table and managed to open every present unnoticed – he had great fun, but no one could work out who had given what to whom for hours! If you have to do things differently, go ahead and do what’s right for your family.

  11. Children with autism can find changes of routine very difficult, and Christmas is very different to the rest of the year. It may help to have breaks from Christmas every day, or for a short period several times a day, when references to Christmas aren’t mentioned at all.
  12.  If you’re doing Christmas at your house, enlist help, take short cuts and don’t be afraid to cheat outrageously. One of my friends regularly buys her entire Christmas Dinner from M & S ready-prepared. I’ve bought ready-basted Turkey breast joints for the last two years – they come in foil trays all ready to pop straight into the oven and they’ve got stuffing done and dusted too. Frozen sprouts and parsnips are a must every year for us and so far, I don’t think that my extended family have even noticed. You can buy a frozen bag of sprouts with chestnuts which gives a great impression of having gone to a lot of trouble when I haven’t peeled a sprout or roasted a chestnut for years. Bread sauce from the packets is fab and a load easier than fiddling around with breadcrumbs, and pigs in blankets are always shop-bought too. Basically, cooking a Christmas Dinner is hard work so make it all as easy as you possibly can.
  13.  Christmas Dinner isn’t even compulsory. When they were little, my kids hated it. Chicken nuggets or fish fingers on Christmas Day is sometimes a lot less stressful. Christmas Day isn’t the day you need to hear your extended family’s views on your children’s food issues! Just try to do what you can to keep everyone happy.
  14.  Don’t forget you in all of this – it is your Christmas too. If you can find a way to stay happy your children are more likely to be happy too. Moods are contagious. Enlist as much help as you can – if you give clear instructions people are generally happy to muck in and pull together. I get people serving dinner for me, I organise others to clear the dishes and pots and pans, and I put someone very sensible in charge of the alcohol. Even someone keeping an eye on the children can take a huge amount of the pressure off you – spread the load because you can’t do it all and why should you anyway?!
  15.  Go with the flow and have fun. If something goes wrong, or somebody says the wrong thing, or a child forgets their manners when they open a present they don’t like….. breath, smile, and try not to make a deal out of it. The things that make you want to seethe today often become the stories that make everyone laugh in a few years’ time.
  16. It’s only a day. It will pass, and you won’t have to do it for a whole other year

Giving Presents

Loud

I really hope you and your family have the best Christmas ever, very best wishes, Yvonne

40% off a step-by-step video course to help you and your family have a happier Christmas, with strategies to help your child cope with the changes in routine and the unfamiliar sensory experiences that happen at this time of the year. Only £15.00 with this discount code link! 

https://www.udemy.com/how-to-manage-autism-calmly-over-christmas/?couponCode=ACYN01

Watch this video to find out more

 

Are you on Facebook? If so, have you seen The Special Parent’s Handbook Page? It’s full of the best information, advice and support for families of special needs children.

Yvonne Newbold

WHIS Lightbulb Yvonne NewboldWHIS Ambassador Learning Disability, Autism and Families

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To buy your copy of “The Special Parent’s Handbook please click on the link to the Amazon page below

Happy Autism Christmas

11 thoughts on “Happy Autism Christmas

  • December 23, 2014 at 12:31 am
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    These are all brilliant tips! Hope you and yours have a great Christmas x

    Reply
    • December 23, 2014 at 12:46 am
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      Thank you Steph, that’s lovely of you to say so. Hope you have a fab Christmas too, take care xxx

      Reply
  • December 23, 2014 at 6:30 am
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    Thank you so much..Wish I got some of these tips before we went for the holiday trip. The meltdowns were really disturbing. He’s autism is getting worse since getting to teenage years. He’s now 15 years and no one ever warned us that his behaviour would get worse and regress somehow.
    Thank you so much.
    Sarah

    Reply
    • December 24, 2014 at 12:56 am
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      Hi Sarah, I’m so pleased this has been useful, and I’m really sorry things aren’t great with your son at the moment. The teenage years and autism is a really tough mix, and families are left to struggle on their own with really challenging behaviours. It’s so hard to access any help, and even those families who manage to get some help never get enough. Too many families are locked into firefighting alone and isolated, with no support, experience or training. I’ve been one of them. If it’s any consolation whatsoever, you are not alone. It’s wrong that even one family is having to face this, it should be a scandal that there are thousands of us. Keep strong, things will get better, and keep battling for help. Take care of yourself, too, in the middle of all of this. Love and hugs, Yvonne xxx

      Reply
      • December 24, 2014 at 6:07 am
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        Hi Yvonne.
        Thank you once again. …I intend getting your books for more insight. ….Not sure if I would get it here in South Africa. …..

        May all families with children with autism have a blessed Christmas without meltdowns!!!
        Sarah

        Reply
        • January 3, 2015 at 11:17 am
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          Hi Sarah – sorry it’s taken so long to reply to this. If you wanted a hard copy of my book, you can buy it off this website and I’ll post it to you myself! If you wanted me to, I’ll even sign it for you. I’ve got PayPal set up with a drop-down menu to “rest of world”. Otherwise, you can buy a kindle edition directly from Amazon. All the best, Yvonne xx

          Reply
      • January 2, 2015 at 5:21 am
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        Hi Yvonne,

        Do you or any of the parents know anything about the abilify medication. . I suspect my son’s sudden worsening behaviour has been triggered by these pills. He is getting psychotic and becoming fearful. We decided to stop giving him when he started withdrawing and becoming like a zombie. …When we stopped psychotic behaviour began.

        We are very worried and don’t know what to do.

        Regards

        Reply
        • January 3, 2015 at 11:03 am
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          Sarah, that is such a worry. I don’t know much about Abilify, but I do know that in some children the side effects can be very difficult. There is a whole range of anti-psychotic medication – can his specialists prescribe something else instead? How old is he?

          You shouldn’t have to be dealing with this on your own – I hope you are being properly supported by a child psychiatry team. Psychosis is very frightening – not just for the child but for all of you. You are doing the right thing – trusting your instinct about the drug. Our instincts about our children are the best barometer we can possibly have, but we don’t always feel confident enough to follow them through. However, a child who is having episodes of altered realities may be at risk of injuring themselves or others, and whilst a parent can keep a close eye on a child in these circumstances for a day or so, it’s almost impossible to keep up that level of high alert longer term. Please try and get specialist help, particularly if things deteriorate quickly. I also know that this time of year is the hardest to get help from the professionals – certainly in the UK a lot of services seem to shut down completely for the fortnight that covers Christmas and New Year, so I assume it’s the same where you are.

          Please remember to look after you too in all of this – somehow you need to stay strong too. Thinking of you and sending hugs too. Yvonne xxxx

          Reply
          • January 3, 2015 at 11:14 am
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            I asked how old he was – and I’ve seen you already mentioned that he’s 15 in a previous comment. It’s the hardest age for our children, without a doubt, and psychological issues are very common indeed during adolescence. I read an article this morning about new thinking towards psychosis, and they mention that these things normally start during adolescence. I thought the article was very hopeful – it’s looking at finding ways of retraining the brain to get at the root cause of these episodes rather than just treat the symptoms. The research is very much in its infancy, but there is work being done in this field that is very encouraging. If you would like the link to the article please let me know. I’m reluctant to just post it because it focuses on much older people with very extreme conditions that could frighten a parent half to death! In most teenagers these sorts of episodes are very short-term and not long-lasting, and will resolve themselves in time. Take care, Yvonne xx

            Reply
            • January 3, 2015 at 11:40 am
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              Thank you so much for all your responses. I will definitely check Amazon for your book.
              Most medical professionals were on holiday for the festive season but secured an appointment for Tuesday.
              Thank you once again,

              Sarah

              Reply
              • January 3, 2015 at 11:49 am
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                I’m so pleased you’ve got an appointment in the next few days. Hope they can find some way forward for you all. Thinking of you, and hang on in there – you aren’t alone in having to cope with this sort of thing, but it still feels very lonely. Yvonne xxx

                Reply

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