Coping with Christmas | Autism

Santa

Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!

If you’re the parent of  a special needs child and the thought of Christmas has you reaching for a glass of wine, don’t worry, not you’re alone! This time of year the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) parenting forums are full of questions, advice, and those needing a safe space to share that they’re struggling after yet another Christmas meltdown. It’s a tough time of year for many families and children; end of term / year fatigue from school, exams, financial stress, family obligations. Let’s face it, as awesome as Christmas is, it comes with special stress for those organizing it.

It also poses an extra stress on kids with autism. There is familiarity in comfort, routine, and the familiar. Christmas means change in the home, kindy / school, shopping malls, supermarkets etc. Suddenly there are decorations, Christmas music, and images of this guy in a red suit everywhere. There are crowds, noise, and other sensory evils (like balloons). There are also likely to be a slew of invitations to parties, parades, shared meals, family gatherings etc.

Find a quiet time before the Christmas season to reflect on what Christmas means to you personally, and to your family. You may want to have a family gathering where you talk about what Christmas means to you all and each choose one tradition that you think is really important. Obviously, the bigger your family is, the more negotiation this may involve! I think one advantage for me as a single parent is that I can unilaterally make the choice to put Miss 3’s needs first and miss out on a lot of the Christmas celebrations that I would otherwise enjoy. It’s not always so easy for those with conflicting demands from a partner or where there are neurotypical (NT) siblings who have events they want to be part of.

Christmas events

If your autistic child is old enough and verbal enough to discuss Christmas events with, involve them in planning which events to be part of and which events to skip (and always have a back up / escape plan that will let you leave early and keep your child’s self-respect intact).

Keep in mind that Christmas parades, parties, and concerts are not only a variation to routine but can involve huge amounts of sensory input. You might want to aim for a smaller, local events rather than the biggest one in the city centre where tens of thousands of people will attend resulting in roads and bus services being blocked / hugely disrupted.

Clearly identify the change in routine and pre-warn them. Show them photos of where you are going and what to expect. Consider creating a social story to help them understand the sequence of events and what will be expected of them.

If they have sensory issues, take along items that will help them feel more settled (whether that’s a weighted toy, a fidget toy, or noise-cancelling headphones).

Restrict the number of events that you attend. It’s easy for them to accumulate in the weeks leading up to Christmas; remember to include in your calculations any Christmas celebrations / pageants etc. at kindy / school, church, etc. as well.

Christmas countdown

For young children, you may want to start preparing them for Christmas as early as 01 Nov (depending on their age). I started introducing Christmas books and cds (from the library) early with Miss 3 to help her get comfortable with the concept before it started at kindy. I didn’t want her anxiety to be triggered or for her to feel excluded because the other kids knew who Santa was or recognized popular Christmas tunes and she didn’t.

I would have been quite happy to put up our miniature Christmas tree the week before Christmas; instead, it went up mid-November to ease her anxiety. They sang a song about Christmas trees at kindy and she started an anxiety attack that all the trees she loves outside kindy would be stolen and turned into Christmas trees; this transferred to a fear our Christmas tree would be stolen from storage. Long story short, we drove across town the next day to collect our tree from Nana and Poppa!

Think about a visual method for counting down to Christmas. You might want to do an advent calendar (some families do) , or download an app, or simply mark off days on a Calendar.

Christmas Presents

Most ASD kids do not like surprises; pre-warn! Here are some ideas from different parents:

  1. I discuss Christmas presents with my son and give him a budget. He researches what he wants and tells me. He knows exactly what he’s getting for Christmas and is happy that it’s exactly what he wants!
  2. I buy my daughter one present for Christmas. I tell her in advance what I’m saving up for and show her pictures. Santa gives her a few small items in her santa sack as unwrapped treats to eat (like chocolate and an orange).
  3. I wrap all the presents but for my autistic child, I attach photos of what’s inside. They still enjoy unwrapping them but they’re more comfortable knowing what’s in them. Their siblings have the choice of photos too.
  4. I take photos of everything before I wrap them and then let my daughter choose if she wants to open them as a surprise or point to items on my phone and then be handed the presents in that order.
  5. I’m getting my child a bunch of small practical gifts (like sensory items, or craft activities, or a sea shell to represent a beach visit) and am going to let them open one thing each day from when kindy ends. They’ll help to give us something to do each morning to cope with the change of routine and it will make Christmas Day less overwhelming.
  6. Remember to warn relatives if certain items are likely to cause sensory issues. You may want to ask them to pre-wash clothes and remove tags for instance.

 

Christmas Day

Wonderful and exciting though Christmas Day is, it can also be overwhelming and carry with it a range of expectations.

  1. Discuss in advance what the schedule will be for Christmas Day. Consider creating a social story  so that they know what the order of events will be. For instance, when do they open presents? When will meals be? What food will be served? Are family coming to visit? Are you driving to visit family?
  2. Identify correct etiquette for receiving a gift. Teach them to say Thank You. Explain rules and expectations; i.e. “Sometimes we receive presents we like. Sometimes we receive presents we don’t like. We should say thank you for each present we receive.”
  3. Give them a list of everyone they will see Christmas Day. Help them think about how they will greet each person. Do they want to give Grandma a hug? Do they want to just wave at that funny smelling Great Aunt they only see once a year? Make sure that extended family understand how important consent is (at any age) and that it is entirely up to your child if they want physical contact. Help your child to understand it is important to greet each person (with a wave, or eye contact and saying hello) but that it is up to them whether they want a hug / cuddle.
  4. Use a portable timer / clock / watch for visiting other people’s houses and make sure you leave at the time you have pre-agreed with your child (to avoid a meltdown). If necessary, have the family take two cars so that you can leave early if your ASD child isn’t coping.
  5. Make sure there is food they will enjoy eating on Christmas Day. It’s all very well wanting a traditional roast with all the trimmings, but if this is something your child won’t eat then don’t force the issue on a day that is already stressful for them! If they want to eat a plain cheese pizza, or seaweed and crackers, or a marmite sandwich + apple, then let them. Make sure they are included and have the option of trying other foods but have food they are comfortable with as well.
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Making Christmas Cards & Decorating Christmas Trees with Children

Christmas Tree Cards

Decorating Christmas Trees

Christmas Crafts for kids

I posted recently about making our own Christmas Crackers (bonbons). I also like making our own Christmas cards. It’s nice because it’s an activity in itself and you can theme it around your children’s skills / ages. Christmas stickers or stamps are good way place to start with toddlers; or save their paintings through the year and turn those into cards!

Christmas Tree cards

This year, I decided to print a Christmas tree template and trace around it on a sheet of green felt. I also picked up a shiny bag of beautiful decorations that included everything from stars, to shells, to butterflies, to Christmas greetings. I wanted to make Christmas tree cards that would let Miss 3 be creative and feel involved.

Christmas Tree cards

Christmas trees and decorations

Ingredients

  • Green felt
  • Stickers / glitter / craft shapes
  • Card stock / paper
  • Scissors
  • Craft Glue / P.V.A. / glue gun
  • Blu-tak
  • Baking paper
  • Double sided sticky foam squares (like for scrapbooking)

Directions

  1. Create a Christmas tree template on paper / cardboard. Trace around it on green felt and cut out all of the trees that you need. (An adult will need to do this for toddlers / preschoolers; older children may be able to do all of the steps themselves).
  2. Blu-tak the felt onto a large sheet of baking paper. This helps keep them in place while busy little hands decorate them and also raises them off the paper a little in case the glue soaks through.
  3. Glue the decorations onto the trees. Craft glue will need to set over night, whereas a glue gun has the advantage of setting almost immediately.
  4. Make plain cards by folding the card stock / paper. Once the glue is dry, use the double sided sticky foam squares to attach the trees to the cards. These have a nice effect as they raise the tree slightly and make the cards look a bit prettier but you can just as easily glue the trees on if you wish.
  5. Ta da! Now you have a beautiful collection of cards and each one is unique.
Decorating Christmas Trees

Decorations on Christmas Trees

 

Making Christmas Crackers (Bonbons)

How to make Christmas Crackers (Bonbons)

Have a Ka Pai Kiwi Christmas!

I posted last year about how easy it is to make your own Christmas Crackers (bonbons). I love that personalizing them means that you have full creative license to create different themes each year. Last year, we did a Christmas theme for the visual aesthetic and I hand decorated wooden beads (my daughter still has them!). This year I thought I would celebrate New Zealand’s summer with an ocean theme as well as changing the gifts inside to match Miss 3’s interests (she has autism and adores things in miniature).

Ingredients 

  • Cracker snaps
  • Cardboard tubes (inner tubes from paper towels are perfect,  just cut in half).
  • Your choice of cracker filling.
  • Blue crepe paper
  • Shells
  • Twine
  • Sellotape
  • Scissors
  • Super glue (or glue gun)

Note: Davids Emporium  sells cracker snaps for 30 cents each just ask at the sales counter.

For the inside, I did little plastic bags containing: Christmas joke, stickers, and a miniature Christmas cookie / Christmas pudding etc. These will inevitably get gifted to Miss 3 for her dollhouse 🙂  They are adorable and were a wonderful find in the button / crafts section, again at  Davids Emporium.

Directions

  1. Take a cracker snap and place it inside in your tube (it should stick out each end with a comfortable amount to pull on). Lightly sellotape it at each end to hold in place.
  2. Assemble your cracker filling and slide it into the tube. I put mine in a tiny sealed plastic bag.
  3. Roll the tube in crepe paper and tie at each end with twine;  make sure that you have enough paper at each end to cover the cracker snap that is sticking out & to comfortably pull it.  Super glue (or glue gun) on the sea shells.

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Candied Salted Caramel Pumpkin Seeds

Candied Salted Caramel Pumpkin Seeds

Candied Salted Caramel Pumpkin Seeds

I love this recipe! It’s a fantastic candied treat that’s great for parties and for holidays. If you have food allergies in the family, it’s also a great recipe to pass to grandparents who want to spoil the kids! It’s also ideal to take to kindergarten parties and pot lucks as it’s free of all major allergens!

Don’t be put off by the idea of pumpkin seeds – these are nothing like the raw ones that you get in salads. These are as different as corn is after it’s popped and are sweet, salty, and crunchy like M&Ms. They are dangerously addictive and are great eaten straight, sprinkled on fruit crumble, or on top of ice cream.

Ingredients

In the oven:

  • 2c pumpkin seeds
  • 2 1/2T sugar
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 3T water
  • Oil for roasting dish

Caramel sauce

  • 1 1/2T allergy-free spread (i.e. Nuttelex) / butter
  • 2 1/2T brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

Allergies: gluten free, dairy free, soy free, egg free, nut free.

Note: If nut allergies are not a concern,this recipe will also work well with peanuts, cashews, and almonds.

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180’C and lightly oil a baking dish (I used a silicon flan / pie dish).
  2. Mix all of the oven ingredients together and pour into the baking dish. Note: the water is important because it helps the spices to stick to the pumpkin seeds (and the seeds will absorb the water a little as they puff up during cooking).
  3. Bake the pumpkin seeds for 20-25 mins until golden and crunchy.
  4. Once the pumpkin seeds are cooked, mix the caramel sauce ingredients together in a pot. Cook for 1-2 minutes until the ingredients have melted and turned a deep golden brown.
  5. Mix the caramel sauce and pumpkin seeds together until well coated. Spread on a tray and allow to  cool.

How to make your own Christmas Crackers 

Making your own Christmas Crackers (or Bonbons) can be a lot of fun, cost effective,  and a nice way to really personalise them. It can also be a relief as a parent with a young toddler because you can tailor them to be age appropriate (i.e. avoiding choking hazards).

Ingredients 

  • Cracker snaps
  • Cardboard tubes (inner tubes from paper towels are perfect,  just cut in half).
  • Your choice of cracker filling.
  • Wrapping paper
  • Ribbon
  • Sellotape
  • Scissors

Note: Davids Emporium  sells cracker snaps for 30 cents each just ask at the sales counter.

You can have a lot of fun choosing what you want to put inside your crackers depending on your budget, ages, and family interests. You might love silly kids jokes (like: What does a duck eat at Christmas? Quackers!), or love Minties, or want to do a toy car each. Party / variety shops can be useful, so can buying stuff from the supermarket when it’s on sale.

I decided to include in each cracker a little note, balloon, a wooden animal (from the button section of the craft store) and a chocolate. My toddler loves balloons and the chocolates are my mum’s favourite flavour. I also decided to add little wooden beads as decorations that I knew my toddler would enjoy playing with afterwards.

Directions

  1. Take a cracker snap and place it inside in your tube (it should stick out each end with a comfortable amount to pull on). Lightly sellotape it at each end to hold in place.
  2. Assemble your cracker filling and slide it into the tube. I wrapped mine in the note & then used an elastic band to hold it together.
  3. Roll the tube in paper and tie at each end;  make sure that you have enough paper at each end to cover the cracker snap that is sticking out & to comfortably pull it.  I found Christmas paper & ribbon to be ideal. You could also try something like crepe paper, twine, and hot glue on sea shells. You can be as creative as you like!