It’s almost Christmas, 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.
- 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.
- Eye contact – your child may struggle with this, particularly in the middle of a meltdown or an anxiety attack. Autistic children and adults can find eye-contact so intense and uncomfortable that it can border on being physically painful. This can often be hard for extended family members to understand, and in the excitement of Christmas children are often asked to “Look at me” “Look at this” or “Look over there”, which can pile on extra stress and anxiety to a child who may already be finding it hard to hold things together. It can help to explain this to relatives beforehand, and also suggest that when they are talking to your child, it can help to focus your gaze very slightly away from their eyes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Our extended family members often find it harder to understand what a child’s diagnosis means in terms of making adjustments to everyday experiences, and that means that we may need to explain very clearly about our child’s needs and how they can help over Christmas.
- Christmas can be difficult for parents of children with additional needs. Families often spend much more time with each other, and see extended family members who may live some distance away, and the focus in family gatherings is often on the children and how much they have grown, matured, developed and blossomed since the last time they saw them. This can make us feel very uncomfortable, and feel that both our children and our parenting skills are being judged. In most families, people mean well, and any questions they ask or comments they make come from a place of good intentions, but it can still be difficult for us to feel comparisons are being made with other children in the family. It can help us cope if we can prepare mentally beforehand, and possibly enlist the support of family members who know and understand our children the best.
- However, if you feel that there is a risk of you or your child becoming distressed by some family members who may be less sympathetic towards your child, it can help to keep the visit as short as possible, or even to rethink your Christmas plans altogether. Christmas should never be about setting your child up to fail, and then having to face extended family members tut-tutting about your parenting skills.
- 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.
- 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 other people or about 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 anybody else. You have children with additional needs which means that you’re already coping with more than most people can even imagine having to deal with. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.
- 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.
- 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, such as severe anxiety or even a meltdown. 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.
- 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 who is terrified of the concept of a strange man in a bright red suit 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.
- 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 loads of 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.
- 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 struggling for hours trying to find a way to make it stand up straight. There are no needles everywhere 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- Children with autism can find differences in routines very difficult, and Christmas is all about everything being 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, and the family can sit somewhere in the house together without any decorations, presents or other reminders of this time of the year.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?!
- 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.
- It’s only a day. It will pass, and you won’t have to do it for a whole other year
If you’d like to learn more about how to do Christmas as easily as possible, with lots of ideas on meltdown prevention and how to ensure everyone in your family has the best ever Christmas, have a look at the video below.
You’ll see me telling you about the easy-to-do online video course I’ve created called “How to Manage Autism Calmly Over Christmas” and it could make all the difference to you this year.
It normally costs £35.00, but here’s a link to a less-than-half-price special offer – buy it for only £15.00!
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