The bright lights, shopping crowds, parties, and Christmas dinner… not everyone is able to feel quite so wonderful at the most wonderful time of year. However, there are many ways that you can make Christmas autism friendly for your child so that everyone can enjoy the festivities.

Why can Christmas be hard for autistic children?

Although all children’s experiences will be different, Christmas can be an overwhelming time of year for autistic children. Sudden changes to a child’s routine, sensory overload and pressure to socialise combined can make the Christmas period a challenging time for autistic children.

Re-think tradition, don’t be afraid to make your own rules to make Christmas enjoyable for your family.Digital image of a child with Santa

So with this in mind, we’ve put together some helpful tips that will make this season more enjoyable for your child.

Talk to your child:

Discussing changes before they happen and asking what your child feels uncomfortable about with will benefit your planning for the whole season. There may be things you want to keep as a surprise such as their presents, but it’s also important to ask your child how they would like to receive a gift. Whether they prefer one present at a time or unwrapped gifts, it’s important to listen to their preferences.

Prepare in advance:

Preparing before the Christmas period can make it easier for you and your child. It’s important to not just prepare for just Christmas day but the whole festive period. This could include:

  • Using visual aids such as visual timetables will help plan Christmas
  • Planning around sensory differences (For example, preparing for when ear defenders may be needed)
  • Discussing your child’s needs with family and friends to make sure everyone is comfortable
  • Make your child aware of any guests coming into the house, especially if they’re unfamiliar

Make a schedule:

Routines are vital for many autistic children as they create a structure and can relieve anxiety. You may find it helpful to:

  • Keep your child’s schedule as close to normal as possible
  • Gradually introduce Christmas activities, for example decorate the tree one day and turn the lights on a different day
  • Use visual timers to symbolise the end of activities. Our Get Sensory Packs include visual aid Liquid Timers
  • Make a visual schedule visible to your child and talk through it with your child

Adapt the decorations:Digital image of a family in front of a Christmas tree

Decorating can be a key element in making it “feel like Christmas.” However, sensory issues can be triggered by change in environment.

You could:

  • Plan suitable decorations and where they will go to avoid causing your child discomfort
  • Avoid putting all decorations up in one day as this can be overwhelming – gradually may work better
  • Create Christmas-free areas with no decorations
  • Choose appropriate lights – flashing lights can trigger sensory issues, you can also use lights which offer different brightness settings

Create a quiet space:

A quiet space for your child is beneficial all year round, not just in the festive period. This space should be free from decorations and be a safe place for your child to go to when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Consider your child’s food aversions:food

Autism doesn’t stop for Christmas dinner. Your child’s food aversions are important to consider when planning your Christmas meal. However, this doesn’t mean no Christmas dinner at all – make a separate meal for your child. Having a pizza and chicken nuggets for Christmas is okay too!

Discuss changes at school:

Schools often make many changes for the Christmas period including decorations, Christmas trees and changing the schedules (especially towards the end of term). Try talking to school about how they can support your child as well as discussing how your child feels about changes.

Some schools will have children take part in a nativity or school play, make sure your child’s needs are being considered in all festive activities. Social stories may help with events like this, but there is also no pressure to participate at all.

How will these tips help make your child’s Christmas more enjoyable?

Our Associate Director of Clinical Services, Paul McIlroy said:

“The Christmas season can be many children’s favourite time of the year that they look forward to, however, for autistic children it can be a difficult time of year for many reasons.

“With the festivities come bright lights, big crowds and loud music, triggering some children’s sensory issues. It’s vital to adapt and be considerate of their needs for the enjoyment of yours and your child’s Christmas.

“These tips set out a helpful guide towards making this season jolly for everyone as it’s important for you to relax and enjoy Christmas too.”

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