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A Happy Autistic Christmas (or why Chicken Nuggets are fine at the Christmas dinner table)

Recently I have seen several articles or workshops advertised on Facebook aimed at managing or correcting ‘difficult’ behaviour shown by neurodiverse children around the festive period. Whilst I can understand that this is done with the best of intentions in order to help families to have a ‘normal, happy Christmas’, I think it is important to consider that behaviour is often the outward processing of internal struggle or overwhelm. The environment need to be carefully considered in order to help the child so that they will not reach that point and behave in a way in which the parents or other family may feel is ‘challenging’.

I thought that it would be helpful to describe my own experiences of Christmas to illustrate:

I grew up in a large family (with three siblings) and so Christmas was usually a pretty noisy affair. We had the same decorations and the same tree every year, and the routine was the same as well. Christmas Day: at our house, open stockings before breakfast, then church, then lunch, then presents and whatever film was showing in the afternoon. Then Boxing Day at our grandparents’ house with another big lunch and lots of presents. Sometimes we would stay a couple of nights, sometimes we would come home. It was predictable and I never felt that it was anything other than perfect. I never had any food or sensory issues that I remember being triggered during that time.

Since marrying my husband nearly ten years ago, it has been a little different. My husband and I are both autistic, and so it was interesting to see how things gradually changed over time. I love baking, and my mum used to make vast quantities of gingerbread and mince pies. Of course, with just the two of us I quickly discovered that I can make far more than we are capable of eating. I also wanted to try lots of fancy recipes from magazines to make it more special, before realising that my husband is a man of simple tastes and although appreciative of my efforts, he simply wasn’t bothered either way about the home-cooked versions of things which could easily be bought. In more recent years I have allowed myself to have time off by buying ready-made for almost all of the Christmas dinner as I realised that it was stressing me out trying to achieve magazine perfect cooking – and that I actually wanted to spend Christmas in the same room as my family, not in the kitchen!

Fast forward to the arrival of our daughter, who we were sure was autistic from an early age, and we have gradually adapted our Christmas to be very different from the one I grew up with. We have the same decorations every year, but there are some things that we have done differently. We don’t have flashing lights in our lounge because they can be very distracting to all three of us. We don’t usually have chocolate advent calendars because sometimes our daughter gets affected by the caffeine and sugar. We allow her to watch the same few festive films or programmes over and over because they help her to feel relaxed about the coming festivities. We have a tradition of making a large picture during advent, adding features day by day until we have finally complete the nativity scene on Christmas Eve. This year it will be a giant one above our sofa – last year’s was on our balcony door with tissue paper in an attempt to create a stained glass window effect.

We have sweet treats such as mince pies, and she may help me make some festive biscuits, but she won’t eat them due to her food sensitivities (and not having a sweet tooth). In making both the picture and the baked treats, the option is there to take part or not – as it’s something I enjoy doing anyway, my daughter knows that I will do it without her if she does not want to join in that day, and that she can choose. If it is something that smells strongly, that we think of the smell of Christmas, she tends not to want to join in, as to her it is something which is making her home smell different and not what she is used to.

We don’t tend to have lots of people round, and we don’t often go to visit others either, but if we do see other people, we encourage our daughter to say hello but don’t make her do any other greeting or hugs. Sometimes she will prefer to retreat to her room, and sometimes she will stay with us. We know that she isn’t being rude, it’s just that she prefers social contact on her terms. If she feels that she needs space, it is better to allow her than to force her to have social interaction that she doesn’t feel able to cope with.

We have a similar routine each year, which in some ways is similar to that of my childhood: stocking presents in the morning, then church, then sometimes a light lunch and presents, then dinner later, or the full meal at lunchtime before presents later. There is usually some kind of film, and my mother in law likes to watch the Queen’s Speech.

However, there are also some differences:

The biggest difference for our Christmas is that our daughter has one of her usual meal choices instead of turkey and the full traditional Christmas dinner. She hates roast dinner, and would literally just eat the carrots and peas. As it’s not fair to push something on her that she hates, particularly on such a special day, I usually cook her food alongside ours. I will usually prepare chicken nuggets or turkey unicorns, with boiled sweet potatoes and parsnips. There is no way to make the meal more special for her, apart from giving her a little bowl to serve herself from, as she likes it just the way it is. And for dessert she will have one of her usual choices: blueberries / strawberries or a yoghurt.

When it comes to present opening, she has one present at a time, and we spread them out throughout the day. That way she doesn’t get overwhelmed by all of the new things at once. When she was younger we managed to spread them out until the new year (and this was following the presents for her birthday earlier in December, which she received gradually almost until Christmas!) We also try to clear the paper as we go, so that the amount of floor space does not suddenly diminish to ridiculous levels. This doesn’t bother my daughter so much, but I find it stressful and overwhelming when there is a sudden influx of clutter that has no home.

We enjoy our happy autistic Christmas, and I think the main reason for it is that we do not put pressure on each other to do things the way that everyone else does, but enjoy the festivities in our own way.

There are some good articles on the internet about making your Christmas more autism friendly, such as the one by the National Autistic Society, and this one by Autism Together. Both have short lists of tips that you might find helpful.

Happy Christmas!

Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy


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