By Austin Hughes
Yes that time of year is here again! Lights are ready to twinkle, garlands are there to be hung and every kind of tinsel you can imagine is calling out from hooks in shops begging to be taken home and draped over every available surface. Festivity and joyousness are flowing out from every shop window and doorway that we pass in a mulled spray on snow fug. I dare say that if you were to stand still long enough in one place you yourself would soon enough find yourself decorated like a human Christmas tree!Families on the whole LOVE Christmas. Many parents not only love it themselves but also WANT to make sure everyone else loves and enjoys it to the same degree.It can surely only be a explosion of Christmas enjoyment ……………. Can’t it?
Sad to say for some that is not the case.
Christmas is one of those times when we too easily forget those basics that can help us steer a steady ship. The pursuit of making things GREAT and ENJOYABLE can lead us into a real nightmare. This is one of those times that we are guilty of letting ‘OUR’ perception of something override the understanding of others. We are stood looking at things solely from OUR point of view and not that of others. It is a very natural thing to want the best for everyone but sometimes we forget that OUR idea of what the best is can differ a great deal from others, especially anyone on the spectrum.
In short, what can look like an enjoyable explosion of festive cheer to some, can actually look to someone else like a very confusing sensory nightmare that makes no sense at all and does nothing but make me VERY ANXIOUS!
So, seeing as we don’t really want to upset or make anyone anxious what is the answer? Ban Christmas? Throw the tree and decorations away? Sit and enjoy a ham sandwich with Ribena when the rest of the nation is wearing colourful paper hats that don’t quite fit while tucking into 24 hour boiled sprouts?
The answer is ‘compromise’. If decorating the whole house and going Christmas nutty will cause anxiety lets not do that. If locking Christmas away will upset some lets not do that either! You would be surprised just how many people don’t stop to think that actually they could just decorate ‘some’ parts of the house and not ALL the communal spaces. Christmas dinner doesn’t have to be ONE or the OTHER…… it really can be both! Everyone that will enjoy a full traditional dinner, let them and anyone who would like to stick to something they are use to each day which is maybe a bit plainer (or even spicier in some cases!) let them have that. It might be a small pain to have to prepare a mix of things but think about the enjoyment that will be had by all. It is funny because we don’t flinch when it comes to the fact a person might be vegetarian. REMEMBER…… PICK YOUR BATTLES! Why upset someone or go through the related behaviours if they can be avoided by just letting that child/person have the meal option they would like. It might no seem festive or fun to YOU but that is not the issue. You can be happy with your traditional dinner and they will be happy with their choice. It is as ever important to not allow OUR perception of what Christmas should sound, feel or taste like to take precedent over someone else’s needs.
It is an odd fact to accept sometimes that OUR wanting something to be just right can actually bring upset or anxiety to another. Christmas can be all the fun we want it be as long as we accept that not everyone wants the full bells and whistles experience. Small changes and compromises can genuinely make the whole experience enjoyable for ALL in their own way. Here is another simple example. For many families it is traditional as part of Christmas Dinner for everyone to pull the good old traditional cracker with that satisfying bang and terrible joke. Think about that whole process with someone sat at the table who may not like sudden loud noises…… have a sensitivity to smells (yes there is a smell many of us don’t realise each time a cracker goes BANG)….. not like clutter…… not like people trying to put a hat on their head etc etc the list could go on. To have that person sit and endure that experience is not going to be pleasant for them. You might think that not including them in such things doesn’t seem right but the truth is if they will not enjoy it and would prefer not to experience such things then why make them. Why not pull the crackers just before or after dinner as a group while that person/child is doing what they want in another room? Again, that person does not feel anxious from having to go through it and you ALL still enjoy your crackers and badly fitting hats!
We could write this article detailing every single thing that happens in and around Christmas, offering many different strategies and ways of doing all of those things. The truth is that posting would be HUGE and Christmas would probably have come and gone before we reached the end.
What makes more sense than a never ending lists of ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ is to simply remind everyone to THINK of all those basics that we know are important to that person on the Spectrum. Remember to think about their sensory needs. Think about their possible aversion to ‘change’ (in your mind decorating the house may not seem like much of a change when you consider the same old house is underneath but to some on the Spectrum it just doesn’t work that way) Keep low arousal in mind at all times……… yes when you get excited about something you think is brilliant just stop to evaluate it from the point of view of the person/child on the spectrum. Find that compromise where EVERYONE can enjoy Christmas in their own way. Also, importantly when you have decorated, wrapped and slaved away in the kitchen try to just enjoy it for yourself as well. I say that because too many people in the past have actually ‘worried’ more than they needed to about MY enjoyment when they should have been enjoying the moment for themselves. Yes, sometimes when I slowly wander off to sit alone for a while or retreat to my room it is not because I am upset but because at that moment that is what I want to do so don’t ALWAYS worry in that sense.
Most importantly always engage with that person, where possible, about all these things. Don’t panic and worry that every move could be the wrong one. Try to sit and simply find out WHAT they will like, enjoy and will be able to cope with. When parents whisper in other rooms about what on earth to do or start to panic then often someone on the spectrum will pick up on that and be anxious before you have even got that first dusty decoration filled cardboard box from the loft.
– Try not to decorate the entire house. Leave one communal space that maybe has no decorations so that child/person on the spectrum always has a quiet/safe space to go to other than their own room.
– Unless they have requested it DO NOT decorate their room! Yes, I have met many parents with the best meaning intentions who have decorated their child’s room and not seen why that would be an issue.– If that person/child has problems with ‘change’ then try to take some of the surprise element out of things. A good idea is showing pictures of the year before to remind them what the decorations are like. Try to do as much of the decorating as possible with them assisting or just being around so they are aware if it. Where possible decorate gradually so it is not a HUGE sensory hit at one go.– Stop to think about the little things such as that oh so lovely Christmas Candle or the bowl of festive potpourri. You may think it is nice but someone with sensitivities around scents probably will not!– Always give reassurance and make sure that person/child can access all the safe places they usually do as well as being able to carry out the routines they always do. Remember most routines and repetitive behaviours are often coping strategies so lets NOT make it difficult for that person to do those things that make them feel comfortable.– Try as much as possible to understand that person/child and don’t be afraid to ‘Let them be’. Remember that sometimes a person may move away from everyone else because that is what they WANT to do and doesn’t always mean they are sat sad somewhere……. it could be they are happily doing their own thing!Be open…… Remember the basics…… Use different perspectives than your ‘own’ to evaluate…… Compromise where you can……At Anna Kennedy Online we want to wish you all a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS……… however YOU choose to enjoy it.(As with all our articles relating to autism please remember that the Autistic Spectrum is a very wide and varied thing. What works for one person on the spectrum there is a good chance will not work for another which is why it is important we always stop to understand the PERSON and not the label)