In the UK, Christmas affects most people’s lives, whether they celebrate it or not. Children and young people have time off school, shops close for a day or two, and decorations, events, and adverts are everywhere.
Different people have different experiences of the festive season. Some people associate it with excitement and fun, while for others it’s difficult. For lots of autistic people, Christmas brings both fun and challenges.
We’ve spoken to Dr Ritu Mitra, a Consultant Psychiatrist, who’s helped us to put together some suggestions that may help to create a more autism-friendly Christmas.
Do what works for you
First up, and most importantly, remember that you shouldn’t feel pressured to celebrate or take part in a particular way.
‘You might decide to limit decorations to one room or have a space that’s decoration free,’ suggests Dr Mitra. ‘Perhaps you’d rather have your presents without wrapping paper, or maybe your Christmas dinner will look different to the traditional turkey’.
It’s OK if your Christmas looks different to other people’s – the most important thing is that it works for you.
Make time and space for self-care
What helps you to feel calm, grounded, and safe? How can you make these things accessible throughout the festive season?
Dr Mitra says that this might look like ‘choosing a space in your house to keep quiet and Christmas-free so you can have a break if you need it. You could also take things like ear defenders, fidgets, or toys with you when leave your home’.
If there are parts of the festive season that you’re not able to adapt as easily, for example, events at school, it might be especially useful to make a plan for how you’ll manage. It could involve identifying where you can go if things get overwhelming, or what you’ll take with you to make things easier.
Keep elements of routine
‘Christmas doesn’t mean you have to abandon your routine entirely,’ says Dr Mitra, ‘even if things at school, clubs, or work are changing’.
Are there important parts of your day you’d like to keep the same? ‘You could stick to your usual breakfast, for example, or keep your bedtime routine the same’. This might make it easier to manage when other things are out of the ordinary.
Talk about Christmas
Even if you keep elements of your routine, some bits of Christmas are likely to be different and special.
It can be difficult if you don’t know what to expect over the festive season. ‘You might feel especially unsure about Christmas this year, as your plans are likely to be different compared to last year (and the year before)’ Dr Mitra acknowledges.
Talk to the people you’ll be spending time with over the festive season, so you know what to expect. ‘You might want to include planning around decorations, who you’ll see, what activities you’ll do, and what you’ll eat and wear’.
There are lots of different ways to plan – Dr Mitra suggests that you might want to use something visual such as a list or a schedule to remind you what to expect.
Tell people what you need
Pandemic-permitting, Christmas means that people often spend time with friends and family they might not see very much throughout the rest of the year.
This might mean it’s helpful to ‘have a conversation about things people can do to make sure everyone has an enjoyable time’. You could speak to people directly or ask someone else to help. If it’s difficult to put things into words on the spot, Dr Mitra says you could send an email or text – for some people, sending simple emojis might be a helpful way to communicate.
Dr Mitra is also keen to remind people that ‘It’s OK to help guests understand how they can make celebrations autism-friendly. You could tell guests when it would be best for them to arrive or leave or remind hosts that they can make things easier by turning off Christmas lights or removing scented candles, for example. You could also set expectations around physical contact or meal-times’.
It doesn’t have to be perfect
Of course, we all want to celebrate in ways that everyone can enjoy – but sometimes things don’t go to plan. ‘There can be pressure to create a perfect Christmas,’ says Dr Mitra. ‘But there may be times that are challenging, overwhelming, or difficult (especially during a pandemic), and that’s OK too’.
Find your own ways to remember the good moments and move through the difficult ones as you embrace what works for you and learn as you go.