Autism and Festivals: Surviving or Thriving?
Lisa Camilleri, Headteacher of The Holmewood School, shares her insight and tips to help support autistic young people at Christmas-time and other festivals.
Christmas-time and other festivals can bring unique challenges to autistic people including disrupted or broken routines, sensory overload and changes to scheduled activities. There’s also the extra noise, the busyness, the changes to the physical environment - new lights, decorations, furniture being moved around - and maybe even some additional house guests and surprises...
Some of the children and young people that I work with have said that these changes and the unpredictable nature of Christmas and other festivals can leave them feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, overstimulated, and may result in tears, shyness, an unwillingness to get involved, maybe even a feeling of wanting to hide or run away.
So how can parents, carers, family and friends help to prepare autistic young people to survive and thrive throughout the festive period?
Preparation is key
Think about how much preparation your young person needs.
Anticipation of an event can cause anxiety so you will need to judge how far in advance to tell the person. Some may need more notice, some less, and bear in mind if it will affect their sleep and/or eating.
Make the preparation and ‘countdown’ to the event visual - use a calendar to mark out key dates for activities, guests, expectations. Create social stories to highlight what will happen at a specific event/s. Social stories are widely available online and your child’s school may also be able to help.
When school is out, some young people will love the opportunity to stay in their PJs and have a lazy morning, but others won’t and some might ‘appear’ to enjoy it but get upset later on.
Try to establish a reliable morning routine with clear wake up, breakfast and getting dressed times. Throughout the day try to maintain a meal routine, and keep to a special bed time routine that is calm, quiet and relaxing.
You may need to pay careful attention to general food elements that typically upset your child’s system.
Changes in the home may be disruptive for some autistic children and young people.
It may be worth revisiting photographs from previous festivals that show decorations in the house and what to expect. For some, it may also be helpful to involve them in shopping for decorations so that they are engaged in the process and may then like to join in with decorating the home.
If change is a significant issue, you may want to gradually decorate the home, adding bits each day, and planning together what you will add next.
Of the young people I spoke to, some really like surprises and some don’t - those who don’t may wish to know (and possibly see) all of their presents beforehand.
Be wary of over-promising; telling a child or young people that they ‘might’ get a particular present when you know they are not going to will not end well! Honesty is best.
For some autistic young people it may be worth role playing social rules around receiving gifts, e.g. what to say when you don’t like something? And for non-verbal or very anxious young people, try recording a “thank you” on a recordable button so they can still express their appreciation.
Family games may be a staple part of many people’s celebrations and it may be worth helping your young person to understand and master any planned games in advance.
If winners and losers may be a problem, consider non-competitive games as well. Allocate roles in advance, and pick roles that suit your young person’s skill set and character, e.g. score keeper, rule explainer, resource organiser etc.
Although this year will inevitably be a bit different, if your celebrations include travelling make sure that favourite books, toys and foods are close to hand as familiar items can help to calm stressful situations.
Prepare using social stories or other communication systems for any unexpected delays in travel, and consider travelling at night time if they may be able to sleep through.
If you are flying, it may be helpful to take your young person to the airport in advance and help them to become accustomed to airports and planes. Again, use social stories and pictures to rehearse what will happen when boarding and flying and don’t forget your sunflower lanyard and to request assistance and priority boarding.
Put the names of your expected visitors on your calendar. Consider sharing photos of these people, particularly if they are new or you don’t see them often. Talk about each person; who they are, if they’re related, what they do, and share memories of previous visits even if it’s to iron out any issues.
Practise opening gifts, taking turns, waiting for others, and giving gifts.
If you practise certain religious rituals, talk these through and role play them (e.g. specific greetings when entering a home; or any prayers). You may wish to print out or write out prayers so they can be visually seen and referred to when needed.
Debrief and downtime
Have a plan about how your young person can leave a situation and/or how to access support when an event becomes overwhelming. Consider assigning a ‘safe place’ they can go to where all will be familiar and calm - don’t decorate this area.
For those who need a bit more support, develop a signal or cue for them to show when they are getting anxious, and prompt them to use the space. If things become too much too quickly, calmly take your young person to the safe place so in time, they learn to do it themselves.
Knowing their fears and those things that will make the season more enjoyable for them is so important, as is acknowledging all feelings and difficulties.
Responding to friends and family
Be prepared and be certain about your plan so that you have the confidence to do what you need for your child. Accept well-meaning (but possibly unwanted advice!) with the phrase, “I’ll have to think about that,” and smile.
Prepare family members for strategies you may use or that they can use to use to minimise anxiety or respond to behaviour in a helpful way. Give them set phrases to use and make sure they are aware of any possible triggers.
Wishing you a safe and joyful season.
Lisa Camilleri is the Headteacher of The Holmewood School, an autism specialist school for children and young people aged 7-19 years in North London. www.thsl.org.uk