It’s a fact that Christmas can be difficult for autistic people. This is nothing to do with not wanting to celebrate, or not wanting to get presents, or not liking (stimmy!) Christmas lights. It’s because an autistic person’s idea of what constitutes fun may be different to yours if you aren’t autistic. And that’s difficult when your idea of fun is seen as ‘tradition’ and what ‘must’ happen at Christmas. I’m going to be asking you to open your mind to the possibility that Christmas can be different, and that’s perfectly OK.
I love Christmas. But I will be honest with you, the Christmas experience I have now is very different to the Christmas experience I had 10 or 20 or even 40 years ago. And that’s fine, because it’s the Christmas experience we have figured out works best for us as a neurodivergent family. We are lucky that we have a lovely and understanding extended family too, who don’t put pressure on us to conform to a stereotypical idea of what Christmas should look like.
When thinking about Christmas for your neurodivergent family, there’s no SHOULD involved. And your ideal day/week might very well look quite different to that of another neurodivergent family. And that’s OK.
Why can Christmas be difficult for autistic people?
Christmas in Western society is considered to be a very special time, a national holiday with huge expectations round it, and definitely happy families spending time together. But the image of Christmas we have today, of bulging sacks and stockings and a huge roast dinner on the table, has only relatively recently become the default, and lots of countries have quite different traditions too. This social expectation can feel quite false and performative to neurodivergent people. Why is this the way it ‘should’ be? Who said so?
Christmas brings change, and for autistic people, uncertainty = anxiety. This is especially true of autistic children and young people who aren’t involved in the planning at home or at school. While there may be Christmas traditions that your children learn, life in general is all a huge change from December onwards – different activities in schools (including pressurising and demanding activities such as school concerts or nativity plays), Christmas music and completely different aisles of goods in shops, and people making demands about gift decisions.
Christmas presents themselves bring uncertainty. What is under that wrapping? Will you like it? Will you be expected to perform the social function of pretending you like it when you honestly don’t care about it at all? Magnify this for a whole sack or stocking of presents. Not all children will feel like this, but if your child wants to decide exactly what they want for Christmas, don’t insist on surprises. The surprises are for your benefit, not theirs. Don’t make, or allow someone else to make your child unwrap presents with a whole room of eyes on them – that’s a very uncomfortable experience. And some children (or adults come to that) do better with presents not wrapped at all or with a small hole in the wrapping so they can get an idea of what it is.
Christmas dinner is another big change, and there is often huge pressure to sit at the table for longer than usual (if it’s usual in your house) with extra people and different food to normal. Parents might also feel pressured to make it a special dinner, and for it to be perfect. There’s an expectation that Christmas dinner edibles can be chosen from a very limited checklist of roast dinner and puddings. But autistic people might hate Christmas dinner, or the pressure of it might be just too much on top of everything else that’s different on Christmas Day. Add crackers and hats and other sensory nightmares, and Christmas dinner might not be the special occasion for your child that you want it to be – it stands out for all the wrong reasons. Do everyone a favour – be open to the idea of pizza for Christmas Day if that’s what your child wants. You don’t have to eat it, but nobody is harmed by them eating it, without comment or judgement.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room – extended family. This is going to be different for everyone. We all have our family traditions, but at Christmas they often involve sitting down at a table with people you might not eat with very often. Those people may not be as understanding as you about your family’s neurodiverse needs. They may have expectations about behaviour and traditions which don’t fit so well with you anymore and which may cause your child to have a miserable day. If this is the case, try to educate and explain beforehand, but don’t be afraid to put your own little family first.
How can you help?
Talk it over with your child. Try to find out whether they love or loathe Christmas, and why.
If you can discover triggers, you can change things so they don’t occur. These could be anything from opening presents or having dinner with distant relatives, sitting at the dinner table hearing people eat or long hours expected to socialise with extended family because it’s a ‘special’ day. They may wish fervently that it was a ‘normal’ day! But they may not, so personalisation is key here.
Try not to go overboard with surprises. As with everything else, prepare your child for what’s going to be happening.
Don’t overstay a welcome and ask your guests not to do so either. Better to have a fun few hours rather than a miserable many hours.
Build in chill time either side of the big day. It’s going to be exhausting.
Don’t make a fuss if your child or family member wants to spend time on their own in their room. This may be necessary to avoid overwhelm.
Don’t put the weight of your – or anyone else’s – expectations about Christmas on your autistic family member’s shoulders. This should be fun – whatever someone’s idea of fun is.
And have a lovely Christmas – however you want it.
Cathy Wassell is CEO of Autistic Girls Network, author, Masters student and proud parent of a fully neurodivergent family.