Christmas can be an exciting and fun time, but it can also be stressful. People with autism may be confused or distressed by all the new activity in the household at Christmas, and this can be upsetting for the rest of the family. This section provides tips and guidance to see you through the festive period.
As Christmas approaches, you may want to highlight this holiday period on the household's or child's calendar. We would suggest that you check when the school starts work about Christmas, and perhaps you could introduce the idea at a similar time. This will help to ensure consistency. However, if this time frame does not leave enough preparation time for your child, then you should adjust it as appropriate.
You may only want to emphasise Christmas Day on the calendar. Or you might want to indicate when the school term ends and starts again, to show that the child will be at home during this holiday. You could name this period on the calendar: 'Christmas Time' might be appropriate. Highlighting this on the calendar will help your child to prepare for the time spent away from school, and therefore the change in routine.
You can then start talking to your child about 'Christmas Time' and what this means. This will differ for each family. You could produce a booklet on Christmas with pictures of relevant items, for example Christmas trees, the sorts of decorations you use and the food you might eat. However, remember that if your child is very literal you will need to be careful as they may become anxious if your Christmas does not appear exactly as the pictures.
On your calendar you can mark the days that you will buy and put up the Christmas tree and decorations, as well as any other changes which will occur. Do not forget to include the day when relatives or friends will arrive to stay. Although a lot can change during this time, it is important to continue your child's routine to some extent. If you use visual timetables with your child (see our 'Visual supports' information sheet, available free from the Autism Helpline), continue to use them to show what they will be doing during this period.
You should include your child with an ASD in the Christmas process. You may want to take them shopping for the tree and decorations, or show them where they are kept in the house before you bring them out for the holiday. This will help your child to become familiar with these items, even if they saw them the year before. Your child should also be involved in putting up the decorations, even if they are just in the room when it occurs. This will hopefully prevent any negative reactions to these new items being placed in a familiar environment.
If your child does want to be included then you may like to give them a particular job to do which they can focus on. This may help them to feel included and less anxious about the changes around them. You may even want to decorate the house over a few days if your child finds change particularly difficult. For example, you could place the tree in position, leave it for a few days and then start to decorate it, adding any house decorations later on.
The Autism Helpline is often asked about suitable toys or gifts for a child with an ASD. These will vary from one person to another. However we would suggest that for some children with an ASD having a huge number of presents from friends and family might be too overwhelming. Perhaps a set amount could be given, maybe one from mum and dad and one from grandparents. Any other family members who would like to buy a gift could perhaps put the money in a trust fund to be used for the child at other times. Alternatively, perhaps giving the child one gift a day might help to reduce any anxiety.
The Autism Helpline is often asked what toys might be suitable for children with an ASD. So we have compiled a list (in no particular order):
These come in lots of different sizes, but make sure it's strong. They are good for using up energy.
2) Sensory toys
There are many types of these, some examples are:
- bubble tubes/columns, all different sizes and colours
- fibre optic plumes that change colour and can be safely brushed with the hand
- bubble-making machines.
3) Board games
- 'The Socially Speaking Game' is a social skills board game for seven-year-olds+ from LDAlearning (www.ldalearning.com)
- Battleships/Guess Who? are both turn-taking games.
- on tape or CD
6) Water toys
- Read-along ones, perhaps accompanied by a tape of the story; for example The Hungry Caterpillar.
These are just a few examples, there are many more. Please remember that every child is different so not every child will like the same toys.
The following website also has some advice about choosing toys for children with autism: www.insidethebubble.co.uk/toys.php
If your child is becoming obsessive about Christmas, you will need to try and set boundaries around this obsession. Please see our Obsessions, repetitive behaviours and routines information sheet for further information.
If you would like any of the information sheets mentioned in this article (Visual supports; Obsessions, repetitive behaviours and routines) please contact the Autism Helpline 0808 800 4104.
Atlantic Trampolines Ltd
Tel: 0800 032 5879
Tel: 0845 458 1124
A charity which helps parents and carers of children with special needs to find simple, affordable solutions to practical problems. Fledglings sells toys, tricycles and other products for children with disabilities.
Tel: 01342 300146
An outdoor pursuits website that sells trampolines of all shapes and sizes. This is not a special needs specialist service.
Tel: 0845 120 4776
LDA Learning provides solutions for special educational needs resources, aimed particularly at teachers, SENCOs and education professionals.
National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries
Tel: 020 7255 4600 (London Office)
Tel: 0131 664 2746 (Scotland Office)
Tel: 02920 566 333 (Wales Office)
This organisation helps to create and support high quality play opportunities throughout the UK, through advice, information, training and toy appraisal.
Tel: 0845 230 1177
Rompa develops and sells products that improve quality of life for children with sensory difficulties.
Tel: 0845 257 0849
SenseToys sells toys and games for special needs children and kids with autism. It also offers play tips and ideas for each toy.
Tel: 01274 581 007
SpaceKraft offers a wide range of multi-sensory equipment and sensory products, including sensory gardens, fibre optics and bubble tubes.
Special Needs Kids
This website for parents and carers of children with special needs has a section devoted to toys and play activities, providing direct links to online shops where they can be bought.
Tel: 01299 827 820
Email: enquiry form on the website
This online shop sells special needs and multi-sensory toys and games, plus relaxation and communication products.
Tel: 0845 230 2777
Winslow provides resources and information to education, social and health professionals, covering speech, social and emotional care, and other areas.
Please note: the organisations above are not connected with The National Autistic Society in any way; we cannot recommend any of the above organisations.
Newson, J. and E. (1982). Top twenty toys for handicapped children in Living and working with autism. Section 5. The National Autistic Society.
This article is a little old-fashioned in its use of language. However many of their recommendations will still be applicable today. Copies are available from the Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104.