Autism and Festivals: Surviving or Thriving?
By Lisa Camilleri
Christmas-time and other festivals can bring unique challenges to autistic people including disrupted or broken routines, sensory overload and changes to scheduled activities. There’s also the extra noise, the busyness, the changes to the physical environment - new lights, decorations, furniture being moved around - and maybe even some additional house guests and surprises...
Some of the children and young people here at The Holmewood School have said that these changes and the unpredictable nature of Christmas and other festivals can leave them feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, overstimulated, and may result in tears, shyness, an unwillingness to get involved, maybe even a feeling of wanting to hide or run away.
So how can parents, carers, family and friends help to prepare autistic young people to survive and thrive throughout the festive period?
Preparation is key
Think about how much preparation your young person needs.
Anticipation of an event can cause anxiety so you will need to judge how far in advance to tell the person. Some may need more notice, some less, and bear in mind if it will affect their sleep and/or eating.
Make the preparation and ‘countdown’ to the event visual - use a calendar to mark out key dates for activities, guests, expectations. Create social stories to highlight what will happen at a specific event/s. Social stories are widely available online and your child’s school may also be able to help.
When school is out, some young people will love the opportunity to stay in their PJs and have a lazy morning, but others won’t and some might ‘appear’ to enjoy it but get upset later on.
Try to establish a reliable morning routine with clear wake up, breakfast and getting dressed times. Throughout the day try to maintain a meal routine, and keep to a special bed time routine that is calm, quiet and relaxing.
You may need to pay careful attention to general food elements that typically upset your child’s system.
Changes in the home may be disruptive for some autistic children and young people.
It may be worth revisiting photographs from previous festivals that show decorations in the house and what to expect. For some, it may also be helpful to involve them in shopping for decorations so that they are engaged in the process and may then like to join in with decorating the home.
If change is a significant issue, you may want to gradually decorate the home, adding bits each day, and planning together what you will add next.
Of the young people I spoke to, some really like surprises and some don’t - those who don’t may wish to know (and possibly see) all of their presents beforehand.
Be wary of over-promising; telling a child or young people that they ‘might’ get a particular present when you know they are not going to will not end well! Honesty is best.