Surviving the festive season: parents' tips for SEN kids

Gingerbread family
Christmas crowds, lights, smells and lack of routine can make the holidays a challenging time for autistic children. Help keep the whole family happy during the festivities with practical tips from parents from the disability charity Scope’s online community.
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For most families, Christmas is a joyful occasion, an opportunity to spend time together and enjoy a bit of overindulgence. But for families of children on the autistic spectrum, it can be a different story. 

The festive season can be bewildering for many children with autism. The house is full of noise and people, the normal routines have been abandoned, and outings mean coping with crowds, lights, and unfamiliar sights and smells.

If your child has autism, the temptation may be to veto Christmas altogether, but when there are other children to think about, it’s not always that simple. Many parents talk about the pressures of juggling everyone’s needs, and trying to keep the whole family happy. Parents of children with special educational needs have been sharing their tips for surviving the festive season on Scope’s online community.

Parents' SEN Christmas tips

Prepare ahead
For us it’s all about preparing our son for the changes coming up. We start early, talking to him about what to expect. He doesn’t like surprises.

Create a plan
Print off a week-to-view calendar page and add a picture of your planned activities during the Christmas holidays (divide into morning, lunch, afternoon, etc.) to help put your child at ease about the plans for the week.

Make special time for your kids
It's easy to get overloaded with Christmas preparations at this time of year, so make some special time for your kids, giving them 5 to 10 mins of undivided attention every day. Let your child take the lead, tune into their world and see it through their eyes.

Use the festive season as a teaching opportunity
Help and encourage your child to give gifts. This provides an excellent opportunity to work on social skills, like thinking of other people's needs and interests, and being kind and helpful. I support my daughter to make gifts for her family and friends. She also looks forward to actually giving out the presents as well.

Decorate gradually
Don't put up the decorations when your child is sleeping – if possible, get them involved. Try to introduce changes into their environment gradually, starting with the Christmas lights for (supervised) sensory play.

Create a Christmas-free zone
Leave one room in the house, perhaps your child's room, free from anything to do with Christmas, so they can come back to the room as a 'safe place' when necessary.

Spice up the playdough
Add cinnamon to your child's playdough to gradually introduce the new smells.

Gift ideas
If family and friends are struggling for ideas for Christmas presents, email them a link to a website of sensory toys or ask for cash which you can put together to buy that (probably) expensive toy!

Prep your extended family
Talk to family members ahead of time. Discuss your child's specific needs, and gently but firmly tell them what your plans are. Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone. Ask for their support.
Pack a comfort objects backpack
Fill a backpack with things your child finds comforting or enjoys playing with – toy cars, a stuffed animal, a CD and CD player, or a few books. If they get overstimulated, find a quiet corner or a back room and pull out the backpack.

Don't hope for the best, make an action plan
I used to worry about my son's behaviour when spending time at family members' homes over the festive season. Basically, I'd take him and hope for the best! However, I've found that planning and preparation in advance hugely helps. I work with my family and we make sure we have a calm room or a space he can go to for when it all gets too much. I put his favourite blanket in there. Having some time alone, or just with me, keeps meltdowns to a minimum.

Hold off on the perfume
One thing that people with autism often complain about during Christmas is the many different perfume smells coming from visiting adults – ask your family and friends not to shower themselves in scent!

Wrap up something familiar
Luke can’t really cope with opening presents, or will unwrap one or two then run away. So we wrap up his favourite big monkey which he always finds funny!

Give your child a job
I always give my sons, who both have ASD, 'jobs' to do at Christmas – they take coats, offer nibbles round and so on. Giving them something to do reduces their stress about having lots of people in the house.

Create an itinerary
I give my son a programme of events so he understands, for example, that people stand around and chat a lot when they meet up at Christmas, and that is part of the occasion.

Don't rise to criticism
Ignore well-meaning ‘advice’ from family members. Remember, it bothers you more than it does your child! You know best what your child needs, and providing it is your responsibility. Try to stay focused on your child's welbeing and let everything else wash over you.

Don't stand on ceremony
Putting food onto large plates/ bowls and letting the family help themselves has saved my sanity during Christmas dinner. My adult son with ASD is very fussy about different foods being on the same plate. This way, he chooses what he wants to eat and will try one thing at a time.

Avoid marathon unwrapping sessions
Don't feel all the presents have to be opened on Christmas morning in the traditional way. Our son would get so overwhelmed he couldn't cope, so we find it much easier to give him a few gifts at a time over Christmas and Boxing Day. He opens them all in the end without any tantrums and is much calmer and happier, meaning we all have a far more enjoyable time!

Get gifts ready to go
When we give our daughter a gift, we make sure all packaging is removed, batteries are in, and it is set up ready to use as soon as she's unwrapped it. For someone with limited attention and suspicion of new things it can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

And breathe...
If your child reacts badly to stress, staying relaxed and low-key over the Christmas period is one of the best things you can do to keep your child's behavior in line. Save the tantrum (yours!) for when you get home.

Scope offers information, advice and support about disability. Scope’s online community has a dedicated tips section for parents to share suggestions and ideas on all aspects of supporting children with special educational needs. They welcome new tips from parents and would love to hear your feedback.