I love Christmas. As a child I made an ‘advent calendar’ to count down the days until my actual advent calendar started. This is not some Scroogy post against Christmas.
|I may or may not have bought this elf hat recently.|
It is a pretty rough time of year on little kids, though. I mean awesome and completely worth it but it’s coming to the end of term so they’re tired out and Christmas is hyped up so much and so far in advance it can be difficult for them to have to wait.
It’s also pretty rough on people with ASD and I’d like to explain why.
1. Sensory Stimuli
The chance of sensory overload (a problem for many people with ASD at the best of times) is greatly increased around Christmas. There are lights everywhere (often flashing), lots of bright colours and reflective surfaces. There’s Christmas music playing, people getting excited and shouting, lots of crowds and parties. Even the smells are often different and overpowering (all the cinnamon and cloves and…just excuse me for a minute whilst I ask the Wolf to make some mulled wine) and there’s new food and textures.
If you don’t really understand what sensory overload actually feels like, I’ll try to explain from my own experience. I don’t think I’m autistic but I’m very noise sensitive and whilst I don’t think what I experience is as extreme as many autistic people it gives me a little insight.
I struggle with noise when I’m trying to concentrate or when there are two sounds at once. For instance background noise (a song playing quietly) when I’m speaking on the phone, Tyger and Bear both shouting and banging, someone talking to me over the end credits of a film etc. It feels like it impacts my other senses. It feels like pressure on my head/face and/or like a blinding light being shone into my eyes. I can’t think whilst it’s happening and I feel extremely agitated, distracted and hostile all at the same time. It’s really unpleasant.
That gives you an idea of what a milder version involving only one sense might feel like. For people – especially children – with sensory issues, it’s really rough.
|Imagine this searing into your eyes whilst you try to stay calm.|
2. Change of Routine
People on the spectrum tend to need a routine. A change to that routine can be hugely stressful. School and preschool routines are invariably disrupted by nativity play rehearsals, Christmas parties, visits from Santa, games, Christmas films. Weekends might be changed around to accommodate Christmas shopping or putting up decorations. Family and friends come to visit, bedtimes and mealtimes become more lax and Christmas day itself can be chaos.
For kids on the spectrum, who have little control over their day to day routine as it is, this can feel very confusing. It induces anxiety and a feeling of spiraling out of control. They often rely on the predictability and sameness of their usual week so such massive changes to that can be devastating.
3. Social Expectations
A lot of people feel awkward when they have to open a present in front whoever bought it (I want to seem grateful but I don’t want to overdo it so it seems false…was that smile natural…should I tell them I already have one of these?) but there are so many social expectations placed on someone on the spectrum at Christmas that most NT people don’t give a second thought to.
Not only are Christmas parties loud and bright and a change from normal routine but they also involve social interactions outside of the usual (dancing, games, buffet style food). Giving and receiving presents and cards also involves certain etiquette ASD kids might not be aware of (acting grateful if you receive a gift you don’t like can seem like brain surgery to them). Then, there’s the big bearded man in red. A lot of kids on the spectrum won’t even sit on their parents’ laps, let alone some stranger.
|And let’s face it: some depictions of Father Christmas
can be pretty creepy.
And the sheer quantity of socialisation expected is overwhelming. Whether it’s relatives visiting, carol singers calling round, nativity plays, Christmas fairs…there’s people everywhere. People talking and expecting eye contact and gratitude. It’s extremely draining.
Ah, childhood. Remember when summer holidays seemed to stretch out before you like an eternity? A week seemed like a month and a year might as well have been infinite. That sense of time is great when you’re doing something you enjoy as a child but when you have to wait for something? It’s agony! I already mentioned my advent calendar to count down to December – I always felt like I was waiting for Christmas for years (now it seems I blink on Boxing day and another Christmas is imminently looming).
Well, children with ASD struggle with waiting even more. Autistic children often find it really hard to fill their time. It’s not unusual for them to find ‘playing’ quite a difficult thing to do and so they get bored very easily. Add to this the obsessive nature of many kids on the spectrum and the fact they’re not good at judging time that’s passed and when future points might be reached and waiting for Christmas becomes a nightmare.
I started writing this post before Tyger had a huge – and public – meltdown after his preschool nativity play. It’s one of those occasions where hindsight’s a wonderful thing. I’d put him down for both the Christmas party and nativity because I didn’t want him to be left out but I knew it might be tough.
Tyger seemed to cope pretty well until right near the end of the play. He asked to get down from the stage. The preschool had made it very clear this was supposed to be fun for the children and they weren’t precious about everything being perfect at the expense of the kids’ comfort. Whether the children joined in, wore costumes, stayed on stage, took a parent on stage with them were all down to the children and what they needed so I knew nobody would mind me stepping forward and getting Tyger (he’d asked to get down several times by that point).
Now, what I should have done is take him away completely for some space and some quiet (I even had his ear defenders with me and should have offered him those). But, I wasn’t sure if he wanted to join in with the remaining songs and would be upset to be taken away completely and there were a lot of parents filming the play and I didn’t want to get in their way anymore than I had. So, I sat with him on my lap in the aisle. He seemed okay.
Then came the raffle. At that point I really should have left but I had a strip of tickets. I think Tyger thought they were handing out presents for everyone. I tried to explain about raffles and prizes but this prompted him to say he couldn’t wait for his ‘surprise’. When it ended and we left sans prize (or ‘surprise’) he started crying…and crying…and shouting. We got to the car and he refused to get in.
All the other parents traipsed by with their tired but happy children and Tyger cried and wailed and begged me to take him back for his surprise. I tried to soothe him, I tried being stern, I tried bribery. But a meltdown is not so easily stemmed.
|Cakes! You can have all the cakes!|
I managed to force him into his car seat. Once home, he refused to get out of the car but – again – I just about managed to force him. He carried on crying for sometime and I knew the meltdown was starting to ebb when he sobbed, ‘Mummy, I can’t calm down.’ That’s always a sure sign he’s ready to stop but doesn’t know how.
I blew in his face. That may sound stupid but when he was younger and had a meltdown he’d hold his breath and I was advised to blow in his face to make him breathe again. He remembers that and sees it as a way for me to ‘stop’ him these days. It only works once he’s ready and I always ask his permission.
It was like a switch and he was okay. It was all out. The build up of all the noise and lights and people, the strange feel of the costume and the disruption to routine, the anxiety and the frustration and even the excitement and the joy. It had been let out and he was tired but calm.
I love Christmas. I love the over the top, gaudy, brightness. I wouldn’t ask anyone to give any of that up.
What I would ask, though, is that you reserve judgement. When you’re out Christmas shopping and a child is throwing a tantrum about their parents not buying them something, please don’t tut and roll your eyes. Perhaps they’re some ‘spoiled brat’ or perhaps they’re a child who is tired and overloaded and just can’t cope with the crowds and the lights and the noise (autistic or not).
If there’s a child at a Christmas party who’s hanging back from the merriment, don’t immediately try to jolly them into joining everyone else (as well meant as that may be). First, maybe check if they need a moment away from the noise to calm down.
If you’re holding a little Christmas get together and your neighbour’s niece is refusing the buffet you’ve laid out she might not be rude. Maybe she’s struggling with everything and she can’t handle the thought of strange flavours and textures on top of everything else. Offer to put a round of toast on for her or see if she’d have a couple of crackers instead of getting annoyed.
For many autistic people it’s the build up of lots of little things that culminates in a meltdown. A couple of small kindnesses can mean the difference between hours of crying and shaking and a happy memory.