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Autism and Christmas: Things That Can Overwhelm Your Child

December 19, 2023

The holiday season is a time of peace and love for most families. However, autism and Christmas tell a whole different story. “I hate Christmas ” is a familiar refrain in my home. My oldest son and wife utter this phrase often during the holiday season. 

The truth is, both love a lot about Christmas. Still, many traditions and factors outside our control make the holidays challenging in my household. Many of those outside factors lead to both of my boys being overwhelmed around the holidays, which adds to my wife’s anxiety and frustration.

Having one child on the autism spectrum around this festive season can be tough, but having two has led to a lot of struggles for our family. Still, there are things we can do as parents and as a family to help make things better for both boys as we celebrate Christmas.

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Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is one of the most significant factors that make Christmas stressful for my wife and me. We like to celebrate the holiday season with our extended family.

Every Christmas Day, the four of us go to my in-laws’ house so the boys can open presents with their grandparents and cousins. This family tradition started when my oldest son, Jeremy, celebrated his first Christmas.

For years, this was a wonderful time spent with family, but that started to change when my younger son, Joey, started getting overwhelmed. While sensory overload can affect all of us at times, Joey is far more sensitive to sensory issues, especially sounds.

While Joey often watches Christmas movies and television shows, his favorite is the Paw Patrol Christmas episode. He doesn’t like Christmas morning and has no interest in opening presents. When everybody is celebrating together, it can get too loud for him.

As our child’s fiercest autism advocates, my wife and I have encouraged ways to try to make Christmas morning better for him. We let him go to a quiet space away from the rest of the family.

While we want him to have fun with family, we also understand he might be unable to take it if we don’t let him have his quiet space.

Autism and Christmas: Sensory Overload
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-christmas-overwhelm/

Another option for those overwhelmed by sounds is a pair of ear defenders. We use these in public spaces for him, especially public restrooms that tend to echo a lot. We are working on using them around the family so he will enjoy more time with his cousins on holidays.

Christmas decorations can also be a source of sensory overload. The Christmas lights may be pretty to look at for most of us, but for many autistic people, they provide a source of anxiety.

These lights are unfamiliar and can lead to struggles for those sensitive to too much light. Some decorations, like the flashing fairy lights, can also trigger other sensory issues. 

The best way to help these children is to give them a break from the lights. You can turn the lights off for a bit. The tree will still have the pretty ornaments even without the lights.

Autism and Christmas bring a lot of challenges, and it’s normal to feel stressed and overwhelmed during the holiday season. Luckily, some organizations offer holiday toolkits that could make your house more autism-friendly for your children.

Changes to Routine

As any parent of an autistic child understands, changes to routine can lead to major issues. My children don’t normally wake up and open gifts. My children don’t usually decorate a Christmas tree daily.

No matter what holiday a family celebrates, there are usually new foods introduced that can lead to issues for many autistic people. These routine changes can be a significant source of stress both for a child with autism and for their families.

Autism Parenting Magazine offers tips to parents who might struggle with many challenges surrounding autism and Christmas. While each child and their needs will differ, these tips can help children and their families cope with these routine changes that may be causing stress.

Social Anxiety

Parties are also associated with Christmas, and while they may be a lot of fun for most of us, they may cause issues for your child if they struggle with social anxiety. This is a major issue for my older son.

Autism and Christmas: Things That Can Overwhelm Your Child
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-christmas-overwhelm/

Jeremy doesn’t like to eat in front of people he doesn’t know. This has caused him to avoid food in social situations. Once he’s around people with whom he is familiar, he eats. He gets anxious around new people and leaves food untouched.

At our most recent Halloween party, we took a different approach. We had him eat before most of the guests got there. He was comfortable eating in front of his parents, brother, and grandmother.

Then he was not super hungry and could enjoy the party without getting anxious about eating in front of people with whom he has yet to find that level of comfort. This may help your child if they struggle the same way with food around people.

Meltdowns

We’ve all been there. Our child gets overwhelmed and can’t control their emotions. They start crying, kicking, screaming, and stimming. This scenario has happened to both of my children more times than I care to remember, especially around the holiday season.

Whether things are too loud on Christmas morning or the excitement becomes too overwhelming, the meltdowns come, and it’s hard to help them cope. So, what do you do to make their festive period more enjoyable?

Quiet spaces and removing unnecessary stressors can be helpful. Find a place where they can work through their emotions before rejoining the family traditions.

They deserve to be a part of the celebration, but sometimes they need to be by themselves to recharge. That’s okay.

Find what they need to create a calming atmosphere. Coping with what is bothering them will help them understand and be key to calming them down again in the future.


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Sensory-Friendly Gifts

While Joey may not care to open his presents on Christmas Day, it’s still important to his family members that he gets to participate in the celebrations. He may not want to sit down for Christmas dinner, but getting him sensory-friendly gifts is the best way to help him be part of the fun.

Joey loves the pop-it toys and Koosh balls. He knows what he likes, and they can be the perfect Christmas gifts that help him explore the senses that don’t overwhelm him.

Find what your autistic loved one needs and get it for them. As autism parents, it can be challenging to see our kids not enjoying Christmas, so this can go a long way to help them enjoy the holiday season.

Inclusive Celebrations

As we’ve discussed with sensory issues, it can be hard for your autistic children to want to be a part of the celebrations, but we can find ways to be inclusive. Joey and I eat Christmas dinner in a separate room every year because he doesn’t like how much my in-laws’ dining room echoes.

Autism and Christmas: Things That Can Overwhelm Your Child
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-christmas-overwhelm/

He may run off while everyone else opens presents, but every family member makes sure he knows he’s loved and can do whatever he needs. His cousins still find him after the presents are open and help him play with his new toys. They love him and want him to be included even if he can’t take part in a traditional way.

Helpful Resources for Autism and Christmas

While autism and Christmas can be tough, plenty of resources are available to make the season more fun for your family. On top of the tips suggested by Autism Parenting Magazine, many other organizations offer resources online to help your autistic child during this season.

Only some things may work for your child because every child on the spectrum is different. Still, there may be something that could make the holiday season more manageable for you and your little one.

Download our FREE guide on the best Autism Resources for Parents

Christmas Can Still Be Magical

As a child, I loved Christmas. When I learned I would be a father, I couldn’t wait to celebrate Christmas with my children. Over time, it has become one of the most stressful days of the year for my kids, my wife, and me.

As their parents, we will always be the most important autism advocates for our children. Together, you and your children can still make a magical Christmas and create your own family traditions.

FAQs

Q: Do autistic children get excited for Christmas?

A: Many autistic children, like their neurotypical peers, can get excited for Christmas. However, many autistic people react negatively to bright lights, loud noises, and other sensory inputs. Individual preferences and sensitivities vary, so it’s essential to consider each child’s unique characteristics and tailor celebrations accordingly.

Q: What do you get an autistic person for Christmas?

A: Selecting a Christmas gift for an autistic person involves considering their unique preferences and sensitivities. Keep in mind their specific interests and sensory-friendly toys, books, or games. Consider their needs and sensitivities when choosing a thoughtful and personalized present.

Q: Why is Christmas hard for autistic people?

A: Christmas can be challenging for autistic people due to sensory overload from bright lights, loud sounds, and unfamiliar social situations. Additionally, changes in their routine and heightened expectations during the holiday season can contribute to increased stress and anxiety.

Q: How do you explain Santa to an autistic child?

A: To reassure your child, emphasize that Mr. Claus is kind and brings presents to all children. Take the conversation step by step, and use clear language and their specific interest to make the concept more relatable. Consider visual aids or social stories to provide additional support and enhance their understanding

Q: How do you manage autism and Christmas?

A: Managing autism and Christmas involves creating a structured and predictable environment, considering sensory sensitivities, and incorporating familiar routines. Additionally, clear communication and providing breaks can help your child navigate the festive season more comfortably.

References:

American Psychological Association (APA). (2016). Autism Speaks offers holiday tips for families living with autism.

Hume, K., Waters, V., Sam, A., Steinbrenner, J., Perkins, Y., Dees, B., & Tomaszewski, B. (2019). Supporting individuals with autism through uncertain times. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Team.

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