• Cory Morrison

Silver bells. Silver bells. It’s Christmas time on the spectrum.

Updated: Jun 16

Ding a ling. Hear them ring. Soon it will be Christmas Day. And therefore, it will be important to know what challenges you can expect for your autistic loved one on this day.

Understand they may want something specific to their interest

A tall Christmas tree stands decorated with white lights.
Living room Christmas tree (Photo credit: Cory Morrison)

Since people on the spectrum have special interests they can fixate on, it is only natural to want something related to that interest for Christmas. Of course, because of rigid thinking

and sensitivities to change, many autistic people may especially get upset if they don’t get what they want.

Pay close attention if there is anything related to their interest that they don’t have, especially newer stuff. If there is something particular they want, but you can’t get it, get the closest thing possible to it. If they still get upset about not getting what they want, explain the situation and talk about how the alternate thing would interest them.

Their narrow interests may make it hard to decide

On the other hand, some people with autism have such limited interests. It may be harder for them to know what they want for Christmas. For example, many regular children may be thrilled to get a recently released video game, but since autistic people don’t always have similar interests, don’t expect them to be into it as much. However, if that potential game happens to be or relate to their special interest, that’s another story.

Also, sometimes they may already have everything they want related to the limited interests they have. In this case, focus on gifts that may support their needs. For example, if you notice they don’t have much shampoo left in the shower, buy more shampoo.

Any changes with plans? Let them know right away

Upstairs foyer Christmas tree (Photo credit: Cory Morrison)

People with autism often have difficulty dealing with change. With the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown measures in mind, changes in plans may especially be evident this year. Maybe you decided to go out for lunch on Boxing Day, but because restaurants won’t offer in-dining service by then, you will have to change these plans.

Gently let the person know in advance that what you originally planned may not happen. If the restaurant offers delivery, order food from that same restaurant to make the change a little easier for the person to deal with by then.

Understand their sensitivities

Often, people with autism can have unusual sensitivities to light, smell, sound, taste and touch. Some examples and how to deal with them may include, but are not limited to:

  • If the person doesn’t like hugging people, don’t push them to hug someone.

  • Encourage them to try foods they don’t normally eat, but don’t get mad if they don’t like them. Use the one or two-bite rule.

  • If there are Christmas sounds the person is highly sensitive to, such as Santa ho-ho-ing or jingle bells ringing, please don’t use these sounds when they are around as much as possible.

  • Bright lights can also bother some people on the spectrum. It’s natural to use lots of red and green lights at this time of year, but be understanding if the person doesn’t like them.

Motor deficits can affect some aspects

Many people on the spectrum have fine and gross motor deficits. They may have difficulties such as properly setting up a tree, putting lights around a tree, wrapping presents, tying knots and using good handwriting to sign cards.

If you notice your autistic loved one badly struggles with any of these things, you can maybe spend a lot of one-on-one time explaining strategies you use to do these things correctly. For example, show them how you properly measure wrapping paper to ensure that they neatly wrap presents.

Avoid Christmas shopping in super crowded areas

Cory and Curtis as small children sit on Santa's lap
My brother, Santa, & I in 2001 (Photo credit: Nancy Fincher-Morrison)

This avoiding is not only because social distancing is important this year, but people with autism are often overwhelmed by crowds due to extreme sensory issues.

Try to shop when the stores may not be as busy, or visit smaller stores if possible. You can also order online to avoid the extra stress this year. You won’t only stop the spread of COVID-19, but you could make things easier for your loved one.

Monitor social skills

People on the spectrum may need help with social skills. For example, they may need prompting to look at a person they talk to or need reminders to say please and thank you.

People typically spread please and thank yous a lot on Christmas, particularly during present time and Christmas dinner. You can monitor how well the person’s social skills are compared to a neurotypical person in your household and then review where to help your loved one.

Don’t punish them too hard

Christmas is supposed to be a fun time for those who celebrate it. The holiday only comes once a year, so people should make the most of it. If your autistic child throws a tantrum, for example, don’t lock them into their room or ground them for the entire holiday period, or lock their stocking goods in a closet for good. They might learn from their consequences, but they would negatively affect their well-being.

What should we do instead? You can maybe set short-lived punishments such as “30 minutes in your room and then we can talk before you try the new foosball table.” If something too unforgivable happens, something that would result in going to an institution, then that can be an outlier.

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