Christmas is a wonderful time of year for us, I absolutely love the Christmas holidays and so do both of my children. Not everyone feels the same though, and it can be a very stressful and distressing time of year for some. As much as Eliza adores Christmas and everything to do with it, she can become quite overwhelmed by all the lights, music and decorations because pretty much everywhere changes – home, school, shops, town, café’s…. Her love of the holidays clashes with the visual and emotional need for sameness and routine. She becomes quite hyper and struggles to concentrate because her surroundings, no matter where she goes, are different. Eliza copes well at this time of year thanks to a lot of planning, taking things at her pace and incorporating her needs in to everything that happens during the holidays.
When decorating the house, it’s done in stages. Little and often so she has time to adjust to the change in layout of furniture, the sudden Christmassy smells and lights. Advents are always out first ready for the start of December and she sees this as a reminder that decorations will soon follow. The tree is always last, as we get a real tree, and she knows that when the tree is up and decorated, that’s it. So again, she uses this as a reminder that all is done decoration wise. She’s never really been bothered about helping with decorating the tree, but I always offer so she has the choice. She likes to arrange the nativity scene and hang up the stockings, keeping her included with some things she enjoys. We always have a countdown board, so she knows how many sleeps are left until Christmas morning, and this takes away so much frustration and anxiety. Because she can see the numbers, she finds the whole period much more relaxing and enjoyable. When she was younger, we used picture visuals and social stories, so she could work out what was going to happen next but these days she’s very aware of Christmas and the countdown board works great.
Having a quiet safe space is really important to Eliza. At home, it is her bedroom. She will tell me she needs some time alone and she’ll go watch a film in her room or read a book. In such a busy period, she needs time to relax with little or zero social interaction. Her room remains as it usually does with all her cuddly toys, blankets and fidgets. She can go up and escape Christmas and all decorations and music in the safety of her own room. When out of the house it’s harder as almost everywhere is decorated and busy so if needed, we head back to the car and sit listening and singing along to the radio or sometimes just chatting. For Eliza, she can refocus, relax and feel safe. Planning is priority when going out at such a busy time. I like to have a few locations saved in my head for any emergency rest/chill moments that may be needed. I struggle with anxiety myself (so does Eliza) so I’m always aware of places we can ‘escape’ to if needed. Even though they are most likely decorated for the festive season, libraries offer a calm and quiet atmosphere and there is always room in the swimming pool café (The added bonus is that Eliza finds watching water very soothing and calming).
Presents can be a time of sensory overload and extreme anxiety. We have friends who do not wrap the gifts because their child just cannot cope with the anxiety caused by the unexpected surprises that gifts offer. Eliza copes well with not knowing what she has, it’s more the volume of gifts that can make her overwhelmed. So, like the decorating, little and often is the approach for us. She likes to have all her gifts in a pile, so she can work through them as and when she chooses to. Sometimes she asks to open gifts on Christmas Eve and sometimes she still has gifts to open on New Year’s Eve, her choice. Having that sense of control helps her relax and enjoy Christmas on her terms. Family and friends are very understanding regarding gifts, they want Eliza to enjoy herself, so they are happy to go by her lead.
Food is the final thing to plan for. Eliza’s dietary intake is quite rigid, and I never expect her to eat a Christmas roast dinner just because it’s Christmas. It doesn’t upset or offend me that she’ll ask for pasta and sausages, and that is exactly what I will cook. I always offer her Christmas dinner despite knowing she’ll politely decline, but it includes her in the moment (plus you never know when she’ll change her mind and want to try something new). I’ve read on social media in past years that people have become upset that their family were disgusted because the child asked for chips and sausages for dinner rather than turkey……Why? It’s just food! It’s a beautiful memory of an amazing day regardless of whether it has turkey in it, chips or a take away! If food of your choice is forced on a child, it’s going to lead to upset and distress. So, I’ve always cooked whatever Eliza wanted and she’ll join us at the table on Christmas day with her cheesy pasta and countless pigs in blankets (a festive favorite of hers) and she loves being part of the Christmas day meal.
Christmas is a beautiful time of year and if planned for, can be a calm and relaxed event. Being together makes it a perfect time, not the decorations or the gifts or even the food. Time spent with those you love, that is the important thing and it’s finding a balance to keep everyone happy and include everyone and their needs, which is why I help Eliza enjoy it on her terms and with her needs always taken in to account.
*** This was a blog I did for Firefly. You can read it here ***