10 ways to make Christmas more autism friendly It’s the most wonderful time of the year but for thousands of families the hustle and bustle of the festive period is more ‘no no no’ than ‘ho ho ho’. But Christmas need not be quite so stressful for autistic people and their families. Number one – ditch the sprouts – or whatever seasonal dish causes anxiety. For many people with autism, or other examples of neurodiversity, meal times can be a real challenge. Sensory issues around texture, taste and smell can impact any diner but this is often heightened for autistic people. Routine is also an important part of day-to-day life with some families telling us they plan a weekly menu that often never changes. Throw in food you never eat any other time of the year and Christmas Day suddenly becomes frightening rather than fun. Why not include a favourite dish on your Christmas menu or ditch the turkey and trimmings altogether? Have a buffet rather than sit down meal. Try foods in advance and take the pressure off on the day. Who says you need a traditional Christmas dinner anyway? Number two – deck the halls with… whatever you like! Tinsel, flashing lights, shiny baubles, musical Santas… for some autistic people this will be the sensory experience they long for. But for others it could cause a sensory overload leading to upset and even ill health. Lots of people with autism also thrive on familiarity. Walking into a room that is one way 11 months of the year and then completely different for four weeks, could be difficult to process. Why not consider some more muted décor this Christmastime? Making paper chains, for example, will give you seasonal trimmings, will double as a therapeutic family activity and can actually be soothing during increased periods of anxiety. Involving your child or family member in the process will also help build a sense of safety. Choosing the right tree – and lights – is also worth considering. If you or your loved one likes strong smells then a real tree could work. If the opposite is true an artificial tree would be best. Number three – preparation is everything (and we don’t mean shopping!) A tool widely used to help children with autism or other examples of neurodiversity is a social story book. Using simple images it will explain what’s going to happen and when, and can even include possible scenarios like, ‘there may be lots of people… if there are we can wait in a quiet space.’ Why not create your own social story book using drawings, magazine clippings or photos to prepare your family member or friend for new or challenging environments. You could include food, photographs of family members, DVD covers, even some of the presents they may receive. Being prepared and allowing processing time could be the difference between a settled holiday period or one that’s confusing for your nearest and dearest. Don’t forget to capture photos from this year for your social story next year! You can also use an advent calendar to talk through what’s coming up, each day when they open the doors. Number four – be creative -and eco-friendly - with your gift wrapping. How many of us painstakingly wrap our gifts, only for the paper to be -ripped off and thrown in the bin? Well why not make some changes to how you adorn your presents making the experience nicer for your child and better for the planet Again, the feel and sight of paper, ribbons, bows and bells for some autistic people will be great – for others it could be an unwanted sensory assault. Making a swap between colourful papers to plain coloured fabric could eliminate the noise from ripping, and you can keep it year on year. It’s better for the budget and the planet , and will act as something familiar each year during an otherwise confusing day. Fabric also helps with any angst caused by wanting to get into the present but being stopped by a wall of sticky tape. You could also consider using brown paper and on the run up decorate it with stamps or drawings, as a family. It will be instantly recognisable on Christmas morning as part of a pre-planned routine. Number five – shop sensibly! We’re not just talking about over spending here. For many families even the process of acquiring gifts for Christmas can be a massive challenge. Whether it’s pre-Christmas stocking fillers or post-Christmas sales, do your homework beforehand. Find out which stores have an autism quiet hour, or just when that particular store is quietest. Call in advance and ask if it’s possible to wander before the tills open and you may even consider going on a scouting mission first to identify routes to toilets, quiet rooms or areas, and proximity to car parks. Online shopping is a great tool for obvious reasons – both for families buying for autistic people and for autistic people shopping. Maybe spend a bit of time coaching your friend or family member on how to shop safely, or offer to go shopping on their behalf if it’s really too daunting to be enjoyable. Bonus tip – if you do buy gifts that require batteries or assembly in advance make sure everything is ready, up and running. Receiving a toy or gift that you can’t use until Boxing Day is no-one’s idea of fun but could trigger upset for neurodiverse people. Number six - get out and about in the North-east No seasonal option for autistic people? Oh yes there is! We know we’re biased but in terms of an autism-friendly day out you won’t get much better than the good old North-east. Ranging from shopping malls with quiet shopping times to cinemas with relaxed viewings of the Grinch there’s a host of festive outings you can take part in. While they may not be suited to everyone there’s an increasing list of entertainment and leisure venues opting to include autism-friendly showings, performances or entry times. With less dramatic lighting, less busy seating and music and noise reduced it can be the perfect way to have time as a family. On December 16 Tyneside Cinema has a relaxed showing of the Gruffalo and on December 23 Frozen will also be showing. Northumberland Zoo has autism-friendly opening times on December 20 with the Sage offering a relaxed performance of the family-friendly Snowman on December 22. Several theatres have also advertised more relaxed pantomime performances and Northern Stage’s Christmas Carol will be more accessible, on December 29. Number seven – hatch an escape plan Decorations everywhere, strange foods cooking, family members visiting… even without the challenges around autism and neurodiversity Christmas can leave us planning a getaway before it’s even begun. But as part of your seasonal preparation why not keep one room in the house Christmas free. Ban anything jingly, snuff out the cinnamon candles and create your own personal oasis. Whether it’s for yourself or a child, loved one or friend having a place to escape to is vital. We’re often told that holiday visits to see grandparents or other friends and family, can lead to misunderstandings. Discuss before visiting anyone the signals you will use when you sense it’s time to go. An unspoken gesture could help thwart your child becoming upset, and avoid abruptly leaving the place you’re visiting. Similarly autistic adults tell us they too have unspoken ‘codes’ with their hosts so they can escape a social setting without appearing rude, returning when they feel able. Number eight – take a leaf from Bear Grylls and pack a survival pack. Sounds dramatic but like the rest of the tips – planning is everything. Whether you’re an adult heading into the great unknown of festive parties or a parent planning to take your autistic child out and about this Christmas, this could really help you out. In a rucksack or bag the child is familiar with pack any comforters used at home along with favourite snacks and drinks, social stories, clothes they are happy to change into if necessary, toys and tablet devices, ear defenders and ear phones. Sounds like the bag any parent carries but for children with autism an unexpected sensory experience, or a difficulty in communicating could lead to huge upset. Having the survival kit on hand is key. One adult told us they also use this technique to navigate social gatherings where they know little or no people. In his bag he keeps snacks so he can eat at parties rather than refusing food and has in-ear plugs to soften loud noises. Number nine- you can choose your family… Well, maybe not, but you can choose when you see people and when you protect your time and health. We are told time and again that during Christmas and special holidays family members will spontaneously visit or stay for protracted periods of time. For autistic people social gatherings can be hugely stressful and confusing so simplifying is a necessity. Why not pre-arrange when people visit – and at the same time put a time limit on the visit. Preparing people in advance for a set-time visit may seem rude but asking someone to leave because they are upsetting your child will be much more distressing all round. If friends and family are bringing gifts ask in advance for as much detail as possible so you can research it yourself, or prepare your friend for what’s arriving. Remember that your own family nucleus is just as important as wider family. Why not have a day where you plan to stay in pyjamas with no visitors at all. Your self-care trumps any obligations to other people. Instead of FOMO (fear of missing out) why not opt for JOMO – the joy of missing out. A night in with friends who understand you; a ‘no’ to crowded shopping centres or a decision to just snuggle with your child needn’t be cause for resentment. Why not proactively become excited about what you gain from looking after yourself or your loved ones this Christmas? Number 10 – embrace tradition and switch off social media Okay, so we’re not talking about turkey, mince pies and dad jumpers. One of the most beautiful things about Christmas is the sense of tradition, so why not make some of your own? Whether that’s pressies wrapped in fabric, a Christmas dinner of Chinese food or celebrating just for part of the day, the decision is yours. Just make sure it’s something you will look forward to next year. Instituting traditions helps make the unknowns of Christmas more familiar and expected for people who require that rigidity and frees us from the impossible standards portrayed on social media. If you have your own unique routines and traditions you’ll be the best at creating them. Switch off social media so you can stop comparing your ‘behind the scenes’ with everyone else’s highlight reel and focus on what makes a great Christmas for YOU.