Jeanette Purkis is an author, public speaker and advocate who has a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. Jeanette has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a Masters degree in Fine Arts. She is the author of Finding a Different Kind of Normal (an autobiography), The Wonderful World of Work (an activity book to help teens on the Autism spectrum prepare for joining the workforce) and The Guide to Good Mental Health on the Autism Spectrum

It has got to that time of year where people ask me what I am doing for Christmas. I invariably say, ‘I will be having quiet one.’ They usually look horrified as I go on to explain that I plan to spend the day with Mr Kitty and all the people who live in my laptop and, that instead of giving and receiving gifts, singing carols or eating too much food,  I will be making artworks and writing. This will be the fourth Christmas I have not spent with family. It is not that I dislike my family members or somehow want to punish them. It is just that all the expectations and chaos of a big Christmas usually result in a meltdown and a lot of related stress for me. While for me the solution to this is avoiding the whole thing, I understand that this is not the case for everyone.

Autistic people can really struggle at this time of year. Some of the challenges include:

  • expectations and worrying the day will not be as good as it is ‘supposed’ to be
  • Food revulsions and pressure to enjoy ‘delicacies’ which have a horrible taste or texture or are unfamiliar 
  • Sensory assault from bonbons, people talking loudly, loud toys and other things
  • Anxiety around giving and receiving gifts. ‘What if I didn’t get the right thing for…?’
  • Too much food and / or too much alcohol  
  • A big disruption to routine
  • Christmas decorations can be distressingly bright and sparkly or visually chaotic  
  • Compounding of tensions in families which often occurs at the holidays. Just imagine if for example, Grandpa doesn’t ‘believe’ in autism…
  • Christmas can highlight differences in philosophical and cultural beliefs – and any existing  conflicts between family members
  • If someone isn’t working or doesn’t have much money – as is sadly the case for many autistic people due to social discrimination in employment and other issues – this can be very obvious in disparity between the value of presents and contributions to the meal and result in feelings of shame 
  • Overwhelm and overload and potentially meltdowns caused by all of the above.

There are parts of celebrating Christmas which can be especially problematic for autistic kids. Santa at the shopping centre can be terrifying, with loud noises, queues of other kids and their parents, and flashing lights and sparkly things. In recent years many shopping centres have a ‘sensitive Santa’ for autistic kids and others who need a quieter experience but for some kids even this is too much. While the photo of children with Santa is seen as an important thing for many parents, if your child cannot sit for it then be a bit creative. Get a parent or adult the child trusts to dress up as Santa Claus. If the child believes in Santa, be creative and say that the parent is a delegate of the ‘real’ Santa or similar.

I am a firm believer that if putting autistic (and any other) kids through high anxiety and overload for something that is not really important or can be easily replicated, then don’t put them through the drama. We have enough challenges with the things we actually need to do without having stress in non-critical things that can be avoided! That goes beyond the Santa photo as well. If children find something that is supposed to be fun and a celebration highly stressful and unpleasant, it is not a good thing. I always think that things like birthdays and Christmas celebrations are meant to be for children to enjoy so if children are in fact experiencing the opposite of enjoyment it might be time to consider some changes to the way the celebration happens. 

Many autistic adults may be spending Christmas alone, like I am! I would say if this is you, think about whether or not it worries you. If it doesn’t then yay to that. Have a great Tuesday. If it does worry you, there are a few strategies which can help. I know this because, while I have not celebrated Christmas by choice for some years now, I still have some feelings of regret at being alone on a  day when so many people are with their loved ones. What I do to address this is plan the day. I try to do something enjoyable and affirming. I also try to have some social time in the lead up to Christmas and in the few days afterwards. I spend Christmas online as well, chatting with friends and supporters all over the world. Do something really nice for yourself if you can. I will be cuddling Mr Kitty and I will sleep in without setting the alarm – which almost never happens! 

Quick tips on spending Christmas alone include:

  • If you are not bothered that is great
  • If you are concerned, plan something enjoyable 
  • It is important to remind yourself that the social expectation around Christmas isn’t ‘real’
  • Aim to view it as just another day  
  • Do something affirming.

And just to finish up with, here are some tips for an autism-friendly holiday season and Christmas celebrations:

For parents:

  • Don’t assume all kids like Christmas 
  • Ask your child about what they like – and don’t like – about Christmas 
  • Be aware that receiving and giving gifts may be anxiety-provoking
  • Ask your child what they want for the Christmas celebration 
    • To the best of your ability, incorporate their wishes 
  • Be aware of potential sensory issues with decorations, bonbons etc
    • Ask if there are any things your child does not want to be part of the celebration.

Christmas celebrations can involve:

  • Acknowledgement and affirmation of all family members and others attending 
  • Being accessible in terms of the sensory needs, social needs and likes of all involved
  • As with most things there is no need for hard and fast ‘rules’ – can be flexible 
  • It should be fun and enjoyable 
  • It should ideally respect the needs and preferences of all involved.

So Merry inclusive Christmas to all who celebrate it and happy Tuesday to those who don’t! 

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