This is a blog that was originally posted at www.spectra.blog in 2020/2021. This site is being rested, and some of the content is being shared here. These are not written from a therapist's perspective, but a personal perspective.
Each Christmas, social media is awash with posts from some individuals bemoaning the fact that their autistic child somehow spoiled the festive period because of their ‘overloads or meltdowns’, or general erratic behaviour. (Remember, autistic meltdowns are more helpfully seen as a form of ‘neural high jacking’; a debilitated state of incoherence. They are not behaviours).
Here are a few pointers that can be applied to any family or social gathering, in terms of helping autistic individuals enjoy festive or celebratory periods:
Put social conventions out of the window
Any expectation of a certain way to behave won’t work for an autist, for a set day of the year. This could include sitting at a table ‘nicely’ for three food courses; playing games that involve being stared at (or laughed with/at); or conversing with people excessively, especially if they’re not common house visitors. Think outside the box, and celebrate in a way that the autist enjoys, not that third parties expect.
Avoid physical requests for hugs and kisses
The age old concept of a ‘hug in return for gift’ is abhorrent, and not kind, if it isn’t consensual. Many autists find physical contact uncomfortable, especially from people that they don’t see regularly.
Likewise a kiss can be an invasion of privacy. It is best to let the child choose their level of interaction – a handshake at arm’s length can be a good compromise; or just 'being', sitting or parallel playing next to a relative.
Avoid changing the room layout
Some autists dislike change in their environment, and things like Christmas trees or new chairs and sofas can take some getting used to. Ask the autist what they can tolerate, or would like; give them a safe haven of familiarity, even if some areas need to be changed. Could a small Christmas tree go on a windowsill instead, for example?
Consider the sensory input
Avoid excessive sensory input, unless the individual especially enjoys it – examples would be flashy lights, party music, high levels of social chit-chat, popping balloons, etc. Combined, these aspects can be a fast-track to overwhelm and anxiety. Ear defenders, music headphones and quiet spaces for the autist would be good compromises.
Remember that most autists experience over or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, light, temperatures etc; this can affect them greatly.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) states – “Many [autistic] people have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behaviour, and can have a profound effect on a person’s life.”
A word on autistic children and birthday parties
Birthday parties can be paradoxical for autistic children. They may find it harder to socialise at parties, or may not even get invitations to many peer events. You can’t force someone to enjoy a social event (and it is hard to plan ahead and know how one may feel on a set day – even if you want to go to an event, if you’re overwhelmed from an autistic sensory perspective that day, or are feeling anxious, you won’t enjoy it.) So, it is best to ask the autistic child what they want to do. Maybe they could go a little early to meet the birthday child while it is quiet, and then decide whether to stay? Maybe they will go if a parents attends too? Perhaps they’d rather see the child another time for a quieter birthday celebration? If it’s their own ‘party’, follow the child’s lead on what they’d like to do – some autistic children would not enjoy a raucous, busy party (and if they do, they may need copious ‘down time’ to recover thereafter).
It could be for example that having a couple of close friends over, or a day at a favourite attraction, is preferred? Look out for SEN-supportive events at local attractions, as these are often quieter with less uncomfortable sensory output.
At the end of the day, every household member deserves their neurology to be respected!