For a child with Autism or Extreme Sensitivity, there should be no surprises! Preparation is key to a calm Christmas.
Sensory issues such as flashing fairy lights, loud music and Christmas candle smells can create a great deal of stress, including the sudden arrival of decorations in a classroom or a home which alters the child’s familiar environment overnight. Such changes should be brought in gradually, with prior explanations told via stories and visual cues, days before the changes take place.
At school, party games may have been organised and sensitive teachers will have prepared the child in advance so that they can become accustomed to the format of each game. Preparation may include strategies such as storytelling which explains the importance of taking turns in games, and showing how it is not necessary to win every game played with their peers.
During particularly stressful periods, ear defenders and sunglasses are good to have on standby for those children who are experiencing sensory overload, as is a box of activities linked to their special interest. If a child with autism is allowed the time and space to absorb themselves in their favourite pastime, the more the disruption of the outside world will fade into the background for them. The autistic child should always have a quiet space in which to retreat when the unfamiliarity and sensory overload of the Christmas festivities becomes overwhelming.
There are several strategies which can be employed over this busy period, including keeping to the daily routine as much as possible, including throughout Christmas Day. Disruption to routine is one of the biggest stressors in the life of an autistic child. The gradual introduction of the Christmas activities to the daily routine whether at home or at school is vital. As a parent or teacher, it is a useful practice to write out a detailed schedule of bullet points and keep it with you at all times.
At home, when family gatherings have been planned over the Christmas period, it is useful to show photos of unfamiliar family members who may be arriving and offer explanations of how the child is related to each face. Establishing a daily countdown to the Big Day or to the family’s arrival is important, as this removes the unfamiliarity of the sudden change in faces in the home.
The usual joyful childhood experience of ‘meeting Father Christmas’ may not be a happy experience for a child with Autism, so the usual milestones which are an exciting experience in the life of a non-autistic sibling, should be kept to a minimum unless the autistic child is very carefully prepared beforehand and agrees to the experience, but is allowed to withdraw from it immediately should it become too much to process.
It is also vital to explain and to show that the child can have their own quiet space whenever they feel they need it, and ensure that this is maintained. When an autistic child is promised something, it is essential to make sure that promise is kept. Unreliability is the biggest enemy of Autism.
All of these preparations can be carefully listed in a storyboard format with visual cues according to the child’s most effective communication method.
May I take this opportunity to wish you all a very peaceful Christmas and a hopeful New Year, in spite of the many challenges we all face. Sir Peter Birkett
Christmas isn’t a season, it is a feeling.
‘It takes a special teacher to hear what a child cannot say.’
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