How to Have a Stress Free Christmas With Your Autistic Family Member

Here my cat Bluesy represents the reluctant wriggling autistic child, who scratches and bites to get out of a Christmas photo.
Here young Shanti (with autism) is getting into the Christmas spirit. Her cat Bluesy, not so much. 

I have a habit of neglecting to think about the amount of stress I will be under on Christmas day but it is does happen so I’m making sure I’m better prepared for it. I’m also hoping to teach non-autistic people better understand their autistic son, daughter, significant other, other family member or friend.

  1. Buying presents and dealing with growing crowds

Don’t put too much pressure on an autistic person to buy presents. It’s just as or even more stressful for them to work out what to get people. The suddenly overcrowded shopping centers would drive almost every autistic person crazy. It depends on the different level of functioning; a person with severe autism may need your help at all times, some who is more high functioning might want to buy their friends and family presents but may be overwhelmed by the crowds.

Note: The following tips are directed at autistic people. 

Tip 1: Get your Christmas shopping out of the way early. As soon as November hits start going into town with the goal of buying Christmas presents. Also, throughout the year if you see a product or item that you think someone you know might like, mentally note it or actually write it down and buy it later in the year for them.

Tip 2: Although, if you’re like me and can hardly ever set foot in a shopping centre then you can choose to buy all presents online. You’ve got to really estimate when the packages will arrive though. If I bought something overseas I would buy it two to three months before Christmas, if I bought something within Australia I would buy it a month to even a few weeks before Christmas.
This year I did just that and all my presents have arrived and are wrapped and ready to give to people with just six days to go until Christmas. I even managed to make my own Christmas Cards and still need to write on each one individually.

  1. I Wish it Was Christmas NOW NOW NOW! – Taming the Impatience

People with autism (and the mix of ADHD often makes it worse) are just like kids when it comes to Christmas. The excitement gets to them and they just wish it would happen already. Not everyone with autism is like that but impatience for the reward is quite common in ADHD. So, what do you do about the pre-Christmas jitters?

Tip 1: Stay busy. The great thing about autism is we have special interests. We can literally stop being bored by spending time on our interests. For me it has been playing video games. I’ve also been pleased to have a range of chores to do so the days have been going pretty fast for me. You can do anything; exercise, play video games, read, do art, go hang out with friends or see a band. Just get Christmas out of your mind and I assure you it will be Christmas day sooner than you think.

Note: These next set of tips are directed at non-autistic family members or friends.

  1. Keeping the Stress Low on Christmas Day

That autistic person in your life is excited for Christmas day, so excited in fact they might not have prepared themselves for it properly. It’s like they can’t see what obstacles could get in the way of their happiness. So I’m going to go through a list of things that have added to my stress on Christmas Day.

Tip 1: Don’t ask for their help too much, like help making food for Christmas lunch. Unless they really want to, but if they’re just doing it to honor you but appear to be showing early signs of stress just leave them out of it. It might just be a bit of stress but it will all add up and eventually come out in one explosive meltdown, which will make them feel like they’ve ruined Christmas, or at least feel ashamed.

Tip 2: Let them get ready on their own unless they’re incapable of it. For the moderate to higher functioning autistics they probably have their own system of dealing with stress and might bring a few things along to the car ride (if you are travelling somewhere else for Christmas lunch). What I do is bring some food with me so my falling blood sugar doesn’t make me too cranky or sick. I might bring headphones to listen to music or attempt to say something during the car conversation, but I would usually look out of my window and daydream.

Tip 3: Allow them time to adjust to new surroundings. After the car trip and it’s time to join the rest of the family for lunch there’s going to be a lot of hugging and kisses to avoid. I kid. I’ll hug but I do my best to avoid kissing back. An autistic person takes a lot longer to adjust to transitions if they adjust at all. Give them their space before asking how they are. Don’t just expect them to jump straight into conversation. Let them eat, drink and take in their surroundings until they really feel comfortable. Some may barely talk throughout the day, others may blab about all kinds of things you have no idea about or no interest in, and others may try to join in on conversations. I’m now at the stage where I can small talk for a little while but I like to hang out with the young kids so I don’t have to hear too much about what the adults say. Sometimes I’ll be ok to sit with them and converse for a while but I’m easily annoyed by what people say. I’m still getting used to other people not seeing things the same way as me.

Tip 4: Try to avoid strangers (to your autistic family member) coming in unannounced. Even the most high functioning autistic might get so overwhelmed by this sudden change that they withdraw and just lose all of their social confidence. The most simple thing to do is let them know that these people that may not know or remember are coming and that they don’t have to talk to them if they don’t want to, and also make sure these other people area aware you have a family member with autism who may feel uncomfortable with a stranger trying to get words out of them.

Tip 5: sometimes we can be unintentionally rude. When an autistic person thinks they’ve reached enough social awareness they may not even notice when they have said something so obviously offensive to most people that they’ll show puzzlement at the negative reaction they get. It needs to be explained to others that your autistic family member isn’t aware of some social graces and can be unintentionally rude. Then, when this happens you should have a private word with them and explain why it’s rude to say certain things and tell them what the appropriate thing to say is. Just getting angry at them will make them feel like you’re being oversensitive. Most autistics think in a factual way, and it will take time for them to see how people can attach certain emotions to what they say.

Just remember autistic people need structure and don’t cope well with sudden changes, crowds of people, noises and unpredictability. Just keep them fed and allow them be themselves even if you wish they socialized more. When they are under stress it’s ok to let them withdraw and be alone for a short while. Some may even have social anxiety and may not want to join in on games and that’s ok.

Following these short tips may help to decrease stress, avoid meltdowns and you and your autistic family member should have an enjoyable Christmas.

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