I don’t like Christmastime. And I should be allowed to say that without being criticised for it.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what Christmas stands for. But December is that month when Expectation Claus sneaks into your house, instructs you to follow all these traditions (whether you’re comfortable with them or not), and you’re not allowed to tell him you’re sad because everyone is supposed to be happy and joyous at Christmas. It’s the rules.
Like everything else in life, autistic people see Christmas differently to most others. (And differently to each other too – because, you know, we’re individual people.) This article is written for those who find Christmastime problematic for autism-related reasons, whether you’re autistic yourself or have autistic relatives.
I’m going to cover five of the main issues when it comes to autism and Christmas, and how to handle them in ways that maximise genuine Christmas joy. So, let’s start with the big one:
Handling society’s expectations
As a Christian, I’ve always found Christmas to be the time I feel furthest from God. Why? Because I’m too caught up in societal expectations to see anything outside of them. Pretty much from birth we are taught the things which must be done at Christmas.
You must have a Christmas tree in your house, or you’re not doing Christmas right.
You must have a big Christmas dinner, or you’re not doing Christmas right.
You must spend a ton of money to show relatives you love them, even if it’s money you don’t have. You do love them, don’t you?
You must make your kids believe in Santa, otherwise you’re ruining the magic for them.
And you absolutely, absolutely must be happy. And if you’re not, you must pretend to be.
That last one, by the way, is a direct cause of the suicide rate skyrocketing around Christmastime. The (inaccurate) perception of everyone except you being happy, and the feeling that you’re not allowed to talk about your sadness or even be sad at all. It’s a crystal-clear example of how important it is to encourage people to talk about their mental health in general, at Christmas or otherwise.
So what’s the solution to all this? In my view, if traditions are overwhelming or unhelpful, it’s important to ask ‘who am I doing this for?’ Is this truly bringing joy to me and my family, or is it something that Expectation Claus is making me do?
If it’s the latter, and nobody outside the family even witnesses it, don’t stress yourself out over it. If you or your child want a star on top of the Christmas tree, get one. If not, then don’t brave the crowds on Christmas Eve trying to find one because everyone else says you should.
Heck, don’t even have a tree if your family hates them. Have Mexican fajitas for Christmas lunch, if your family loves them but hates turkey, stuffing and sprouts. Nobody else is going to know.
Finally, as much as society says otherwise, your child doesn’t have to believe in Santa. If you have a super-logical autistic child who questions how Santa can visit several thousand homes per second over one night (without bursting into flames due to air resistance) – or an extremely anxious child who doesn’t want a giant man in a red coat sneaking into their room in the dead of night – I’d encourage you to respect their choice to not believe, or not want to believe.
Forced belief in Santa doesn’t add to the child’s sense of Christmas magic, even if it adds to the parent’s. Rather, it removes from it. After all, that super-logical child probably wants to say thank you to their parents when they open their main present, rather than feel forced to leave it unsaid because they’re supposed to not believe their parents bought it.
This is one big reason why Christmas is a nightmare to so many families with autistic members. Especially if other areas of the family have their own Christmas-related expectations in mind. These can include:
Endless socialising at Christmas dinner.
Showing the correct reactions when opening presents. (Bear in mind autistic people often feel delight and gratefulness without it coming across in the socially expected manner.)
Forced conversations about whether a family member has recovered from the autisms yet, and what they’ve heard the latest causes/cures/best diets are.
Giving Grandma a hug and a wet sloppy kiss goodbye, regardless of how you feel about bodily autonomy.
So what can be done about this? Well that depends on the family, and how well your non-autistic relatives cope with change. (I love getting to write ironic sentences like that.) So feel free to adapt this advice to match your own family tree.
Often, an honest conversation can be enough. A gentle chat about what makes you or your autistic child anxious could end up with it being accommodated with no questions asked. Sometimes the conversation is avoided because people are understandably afraid of the reaction, but it’s better to give it a go – otherwise you’re just enduring anxiety to avoid the chance of their reaction making you anxious.
(Non-autism-related example: back in 2005, my cousins and I just agreed to not buy each other presents. There was nothing either side wanted, and we’d clearly only be buying them because we’re “supposed to”. More than a decade later we still meet up for Christmas, chatting, drinking and enjoying each other’s company, without a single present to show for it. And it’s been totally stress-free.)
Just because you’re meeting up with family doesn’t mean that Christmas must be done on their terms. (In fact, why should it be theirs and not yours? You’re the ones who need accommodation.) If there need to be non-negotiables involved – like your child not receiving that nightmarish snog from Grandma – then those should be presented unashamedly. After all, isn’t Christmas for the children? Why would that stop just because the child happens to be autistic?
Of course, compassion goes a long way. It may not be easy for other family members to abandon traditions they’ve had since childhood. Handle it sensitively, but be clear it’s in the interests of a vulnerable family member who must come first. And if someone needs downtime or breaks from conversation, they are entitled to them without further discussion.
Sadly, there will be cases when other branches of the family are so unaccommodating that the only positive option is to spend Christmastime without them. Don’t be ashamed about this. Remember that – as sad as it sounds – you’ll be adding to your/your child’s Christmas joy by not having them around.
Handling routine changes
Being a primary school teacher knocked out all the reliance on routine I ever had. Now that I’m a special needs tutor, flexibility is pretty much my middle name. But of course, I’m the exception rather than the rule when it comes to autism and routine.
Christmas can be a horrifying time for those who rely on routine for their sense of stability. For every autistic child who sings Christmas songs in March, there’s another who’s terrified by the concept of Christmas. For every autistic adult who welcomes the opportunity to see family, there’s another who feels terrified at the responsibility to perform.
There is no shame in redefining the whole of Christmastime to suit yourself or your child. Christmas is a celebration, not a duty. (And even if you’re a Christian and do see it as a duty, that duty has very little to do with Christmas trees, Elf on the Shelf, or eating sprouts. Incidentally, please tell me Britain is the only country where eating sprouts is a rule?)
I’m fairly liberal when it comes to my beliefs about Christmas: that it should be done on your own terms, not everyone else’s. I came to believe this after watching too many people get too stressed about preparations that apparently must be done on pain of death, for no reason other than “because it’s Christmas!! We have to!!”
If you or your child can’t handle the Christmas routine, change the routine. It’s that simple. (Notice I don’t say it’s easy– I’m saying it’s a simple concept.) Adopt your own family traditions and routines that don’t drive anxiety, and stick to them.
If you’re a parent, one uncomfortable part of this may involve changing your own expectations of what Christmas is supposed to look like. Recently I had a message from a follower whose son had begged her not to give him surprise presents, and just tell him what he was getting in advance – his reason being that the unknown was making him anxious.
The mother found the surprise element difficult to let go of, because it had been Christmas tradition her whole life. But she soon agreed that telling him was the right thing to do. Deep down she knew that providing for her son’s anxiety was more important than her personal view of what Christmas is meant to be. But our emotional attachment to tradition can hinder our willingness to adapt to other people’s needs.
Handling sensory issues
Christmas is a sensory nightmare, let’s face it. And just last night, my local news reported on epileptic members of the public becoming housebound for the whole of Christmas because of all the flashing lights.
In order to meet your or your child’s sensory needs, obviously it starts at home. Make sure the house is decorated in a way that maintains the feeling of safety that a home should have. And if this involves literally not decorating at all, then so be it.
Oh, and if a child doesn’t like the crinkling noise of wrapping paper, ask yourself how much it’s truly needed.
In these days of shopping online, hellish crowded streets with loud music and flashing lights can be avoided. And if you must go outside to shop, learn from experience which days/times are less stressful, and which particular places are best too. Driving to a village with a couple of shops may be better than going to a city with loads more variety but more risk attached.
Also, don’t be afraid to avoid certain events. The school disco won’t fall apart if your child doesn’t attend. At the risk of repeating the same point over and over (which I don’t regret because it’s a point worth repeatedly making), your approach should be on your terms, in a way that matches your specific family rather than society in general.
The Christian side of Christmas
For those not celebrating Christmas for religious reasons, I won’t blame you for skipping this one. Right at the beginning I said that Christmastime is when I feel furthest from God, so I’d like to give advice to others who feel the same.
To me, it helps a lot to remember how detached our Christmas is from the birth of Christ. Some may see that as sad, but from my perspective it’s a relief: I can let go of any Christmas traditions that don’t connect to Jesus without a sense of guilt.
Also, the Victorians largely invented Christmas as we know it in Britain. Christmas trees weren’t even common here before Prince Albert brought one back from Norway in 1841. I’ve even heard that Christmas wasn’t lavishly celebrated until Charles Dickens popularised it in A Christmas Carol. (It’s not even the most important day of the Christian calendar: Easter is the #1 Christian celebration, not Christmas.)
My personal opinion on how to celebrate Christmas in a Christian manner? Say more prayers at Christmastime, give more thanks for what you have, and for God’s provision. Attend a church where you feel welcomed, and engage with the service.
My church meets in a pub (yes, you read that right), and is specifically geared towards those who don’t connect with mainstream Anglican churches. It may not have glorious architecture, but it has the Christian warmth that Christmastime should bring.
And until you can find me a Bible passage which commands you to hang up stockings, pull crackers with terrible jokes inside (or even eat sprouts), then that is enough.
I recently asked my Facebook followers what steps they take for an autism-friendly Christmas. I’d like to finish this article with some of their responses.
“I’m setting up an isolation room for our one guest who really hates socializing. He can visit or isolate as needed.”
“What I have found helpful as a mom – whether for my NT [neurotypical] or my ND [neurodivergent] child – is remembering that there is no need to compare myself or my family to anyone else’s family. This includes for Christmas, birthday parties, summer activities, etc!”
“Gatherings of less than 10 people. Celebrations spread out not all crammed in one day.”
“We only have decorations downstairs so it’s not too overwhelming for the kids. Try to minimise the smells too.”
“Chips and cheese for dinner. No visitors. And The Lion King on the TV for the billionth time.”
“Ample food and a little bit of alcohol to celebrate the blessings that were still here and made it another year. Oh and give thanks for it all. Prayer or a silent thank you said quietly skywards. Doesnt matter. Just say thank you. And if you can, donate to those less fortunate or volunteer to spend some time in a soup kitchen.”
“I decorate a little bit each day over the space of at least a week and involve my daughter as much as she wants to be involved.”
“Super clear rules on gift giving….instead of saying $50 but meaning $100 (darn hidden rules)!”
“For us, the best decision we ever made relating to Christmas celebrations was to host them all at our house. (3 different groups of relatives) It sounds like an extra burden, but it was actually much easier on my son to not have to go out to unfamiliar homes and deal with large crowds of noisy relatives. He could participate as much as he wanted to and then retreat to his own room when he was done.”
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook