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Christmas and autism

It’s that time of year when the festive season is almost in full swing. At school we have been rehearsing for an end of term show and started making Christmas decorations and cards.

It’s that time of year when the festive season is almost in full swing.  At school we have been rehearsing for an end of term show; started making Christmas decorations and cards; organising class parties; and preparing to get stuck into many other seasonal activities. 

Christmas can represent an exciting and fun time for many children.  Writing to Father Christmas and promising him that they’ve been a good boy or girl that year, then waiting in anticipation for prized new possessions, is the ultimate goal for many children up and down the country.

However, the busyness, unpredictable events, social interactions and sensory overload of flashing lights and too much information can, for many children be an overwhelming feat, particularly those with autism.  Christmas is therefore, not always a welcome time.  So what can be done to support a child with autism?

Inform your child that Christmas is coming

During the run up to Christmas, reassuringly talk to your child about how far away the date is, why people celebrate it every year and that it’s okay to find this time of year difficult.  Draw pictures to depict what happens on Christmas day, and then discuss what has been drawn in detail. This may seem obvious, but many adults just skirt around the subject of Christmas, then all of a sudden the festive seasons appears like a whirlwind of non-stop activities.  A child with autism needs to have the time to mentally process what is going on.  By giving the child the time and space to discuss the occasion beforehand, they may feel more informed in the approach towards Christmas.

Use a Visual Timetable

Autistic children tend to dislike changes and unpredictability. Whilst change is unavoidable in life, a timetable will visually help your child feel more in control of their schedule and less anxious about how busy things are during Christmas time.  Reassure your child that every day is a brand new day and everything happening takes place one step at a time.  A calendar or visual timetable can help pinpoint all the dates where festive events and activities will be taking place. 

At school, I have a class calendar which includes all the events that week.  Some of the children have their own personal visual timetable for the day.  At home, I recommend decorating a calendar to your child’s tastes. Make sure it has plenty of visual information to easily grasp.  Give your child the opportunity to tick off events as they occur, draw symbols and have fun with the calendar. The more relaxed, creative and organised you are the better for your child. 

Develop emotional intelligence

Christmas can be an emotional time for children. Whether they experience feelings of glee or frustration, all emotions are valid and many children with autism find it hard to share how they are feeling so they tend to bottle them up.  Bottling up our feelings during busy periods like Christmas is unhealthy and often results in meltdowns and sudden bursts of anxiety.  To help the children in my class understand their emotions, I use the Zones of Regulation. The Zones puts children into 1 of 4 distinct colour zones to determine their emotional state.  If a child is in the RED Zone, they may be experiencing intense emotions like anger. If a child is in the YELLOW Zone they feel anxious or nervous.  If a child is in the GREEN Zone, they may feel calm and ready to learn. Lastly, if a child is in the BLUE Zone, they may feel sad or tired.  Each zone is valid and never to be frowned on by an adult, but ultimately the idea is for the child to get back to the GREEN Zone, when they feel ready.

The Zones can help children alter their emotional state related to Christmas, with self regulation tools like deep breathing, movement breaks, sensory activities or cognitive problem solving.  For a child with autism, this is a wonderful way to develop their emotional intelligence and gradually learn how to express their feelings.

Make a Social Story

In the past I have created Christmas social stories to support children in my class. A social story can visually help a child come to terms with the transition into the festive season and informs them of the strategies they can use if they ever feel overwhelmed by all the changes.  Strategies can include talking to an adult, taking a break by going for a walk, using a sensory or fiddly toy and any other suitable tools I have agreed with my pupils.  Bear in mind that a social story could be made by the parent, but essentially should make use of consistent language the child can easily understand, be short, positive and offer clear reassurance that it’s okay to have feelings about the changes.

Creative Games and Role Play

Using Christmas themed art, drama and games either 1:1 or as a whole class, is a great way to help any child prepare for the festivities.   Examples I have used based on the kids’ suggestions, include children miming the opening of presents then pretending to play with them, whilst children guess what the unwrapped the presents are.  We have also made Christmas scrap books, played ‘crimbo pass the parcel’, memory games and had silent Christmas parties. 

By bringing calm and fun drama activities into the classroom during the run up of Christmas, it can help a child with autism feel more present and relate to the fact that although it’s a busy time, it happens once a year and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways.

Lastly, with plenty of support and adapting some of the tools above, a child with autism can start to feel reassured during the festive season.  The unpredictable events that Christmas brings, comes around very quickly every year, so by learning how to process these changes, with patience and perseverance, it can make a huge difference to the life of a child with autism.

Nicky Harvey is an experienced SEN specialist teacher who is passionate about creative learning and inclusive teaching practices to help children reach their potential. In her spare time she enjoys dancing, creative writing and mindfulness. Her blog can be found at: www.journalofmissh.com or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/thejournalofmissh.

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