How to plan to make Christmas as stress-free as possible with a child with ASD

calm ASD christmas

It’s no secret that Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of the year for many of us. There are a huge range of triggers for this stress that we all experience from time to time. The expectation that one meal will be memorable for the right reasons, the financial burden the season places upon us, the seemingly endless stream of visitors to be hosted and visits to be made and that’s just for starters…

76% of people reported problems with sleeping at Christmas and 60% of people have experienced panic attacks over the Christmas period. (Mind study, 2015)

As a self-proclaimed Christmasophile, (I literally have Christmas music playing in my house from November onwards) I sometimes find it hard to see the downside of the festive season. But even I have to admit that there are parts of the holiday that are a challenge.

I can usually acknowledge and reduce my own stress and anxiety levels as the holiday season approaches and I’ve learnt some great strategies for this. Recently, though, I began to think about what this time of year is like for many of the students at our school. These young people aren’t always able to recognise what it is that’s causing them anxiety (or even recognise the feeling of anxiety) and often require direct intervention from a supporting adult to identify useful strategies to reduce that anxiety.

Christmas makes life just a little bit more difficult doesn’t it?

As parents of children with ASD, you know better than anyone how difficult this time of year can be for your child and, as a result, for your whole family. The excitement of the season builds these days from October onwards in the shops and on our TV screens and you have to work so hard to keep excitement down to a manageable level.

The shortened daylight hours seem to sap your emotional strength more than usual. The changes in routine become less easy to avoid as you plan for the big day…or week…and all around you the Christmas music seems to get louder, the shops get busier and that quiet, secret car park you use all year round to nip into town has suddenly been discovered by every shopper across the county.

How can we help?

Here at Alderwasley, we have a vast array of highly specialised staff in a huge range of areas of work (Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Psychotherapy, Clinical Psychology, student wellbeing, ASD-specific teaching, ASD-specific residential care) and I thought that I’d ask a few of them for their opinions on strategies to help parents of children with ASD have as stress-free a Christmas as possible. Here’s what they had to say…

Our Wellbeing Officers Lisa and Ravneet said:

“It’s really important to involve your child in the planning of events and giving them a specific task to do when visitors arrive (for example handing out nibbles) can be helpful to reduce your child’s anxiety. Also, make sure that your child knows who is going to be arriving and at what time they’re due as this will help to support your child’s internal processing.”

Our Head of Therapies, Emma suggested:

“Set up a calendar of what’s going to be happening and re-visit it each morning – crossing off completed activities and talking about what’s next. Talking to your child about how they might feel about the different activities planned will help them to manage different feelings (for example they might be excited about gift opening but then disappointed in what’s actually unwrapped). Acknowledge with them that it’s okay to have different feelings for different parts of the holiday.”

Fill in your weekly planner with your child and cross off activities once they’re complete.

Our Heads of Speech & Language Therapy and Occupational Therapy, Mel and Jane had this advice:

“Make sure that you build in quiet time in amongst all the changes to the usual routine. Make sure that your child has access to their preferred sensory calming tools and, if it’s possible, when you’re at someone else’s house, identify a safe place for your child to retreat to if they need quiet time. This will help them to lower arousal levels and refocus their attention.”

Our Residential Lead Practitioner, Carly gave these top tips:

“Talk to your child and jointly plan what decorations will be placed where in your home. Get your child to take an active role in putting the decorations up so that there are no surprises in the rooms in their home.”

Our two Assistant Headteachers, Bernardo and Ed said:

“If you’re heading out to a public event (such as a meet Santa Claus event or Christmas Market), research the venue in advance as much as you’re able. You can get a lot of information from Customer Services teams who may even be able to advise you of any adaptations they can make for your child. Even though many routines will have to change over the festive period, talk to your child about how the changes you make are okay and are expected changes at this time of year. Ed was very keen to point out that it’s okay to have a mince pie for breakfast once in a while!!”

These are all fantastic tips to help your family Christmas go as smoothly as it can. It’s really important to remember that no matter what anyone tells you, no Christmas is stress-free. Your Christmas doesn’t have to live up to anyone else’s Christmas – never judge yourself by the standards anyone else sets (particularly on social media)… it just needs to be what you wanted it to be. It’s okay to say “no” to some of the invitations you receive.

Oh, and my tips?

Enjoy spending time together as a family, doing the things you like to do. And always, always, have a Plan B!

Don’t forget that if you need a friendly ear over the holiday, you can also talk to other families in similar situations using groups and forums such as The Autism Support Network on Facebook or Autism Support UK. And don’t forget to post your comments on our Facebook Page too and let know us what you’ve been up to over the holiday.

From everyone here at Alderwasley Hall School, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

About me:

Sara Forsyth Headteacher Alderwasley Hall School Sixth Form

I am the Headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form and I have almost 25 years’ experience in SEND, in particular working with young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Alderwasley Hall School and Sixth Form is an exceptional independent SEN school for young people with ASD and associated needs in Derbyshire.

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