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Santa Claus ornament on a Christmas tree

National charity offers advice on how to best accommodate autistic children during Christmas

The routine that some autistic people rely on can be tossed aside at Christmas, placing them in an unfamiliar environment.

CHRISTMAS IS A special time of the year for most families but can also be a stressful and overwhelming time for many people with autism.

It’s a time when the routine that some autistic people rely on can be tossed aside amid festive spontaneity, which places them in an unfamiliar environment.

Amanda Mc Guinness is manager of AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity.

McGuinness herself is an autistic parent to four children, three of whom are autistic.

AsIAm offers child and family support programmes and runs an autism information line, which is available Monday to Thursday, from 10am to 3pm.

McGuinness told The Journal that while Christmas is an exciting, social and stimulating time for many, it can also be a stressful and overwhelming time for many autistic people who may be reliant on calm environments, predictability and routine.


McGuinness noted that many autistic people have a strong preference for routine and said you can support an autistic friend or family member by providing a daily schedule that contains “pillar points” that occur on any other day of the year.

All individuals who will support the autistic person should have a copy of this schedule.

This can be a visual aid such as countdown calendars, lists and schedules, and visual guides to help plan for Christmas.

AsIAm has a range of free visual guides, schedules and visual letters to Santa available on its website.

“For example, bedtime routines remain the same even throughout the Christmas period, perhaps meal times as much as possible occur at the same time,” said McGuinness.

“If they have a daily activity for example going for a walk – ensure this continues to happen each day throughout the Christmas period and beyond.”

She added that Christmas activities should be introduced into daily schedules on a gradual basis, and if the autistic person shows a preference not to participate in these activities, their preference should be respected.

Pete Wharmby is an autistic writer and author, who is engaged in autism advocacy.

“Do invite us to stuff, even if we might refuse,” he wroteon X, formerly Twitter.

“It’s one thing declining an invitation, and a whole other horrid thing to never even be asked.”

Meanwhile, McGuinness adds that a quiet space should be provided for autistic family members to retreat to when they wish to do so in their own home.

“When visiting extended family or friends request a location where they can rest and relax if they wish to do so,” added McGuinness.

Wharmby also offered this advice for when people come out from this quiet space: “Don’t make a big deal out of seeing an autistic family member, especially if they’ve been hiding upstairs or something.

“That whole ‘hello stranger, look who’s finally joining us’ thing is bloody awful.”

McGuinness also advised that you should talk with extended family members and potential visitors in advance as to what accommodations might be required and to inform them what can be expected in terms of communication differences and social interaction differences.

As well as a quiet space, quiet time should be allotted in the schedule so that the autistic person has time to rest and recharge throughout the day.

Wharmby noted: “The stress of Christmas might make a lot of autistic people non-speaking, even if we’re not all the time, and being nagged to speak up and say hello to grannie can force us down the fast-track to overwhelm.”

McGuiness also noted that Christmas tree lighting during the day can be set to a schedule where it comes on and turns off at set times and advised that sensory differences should be taken into account.

“Plan for sensory differences and provide sensory friendly alternatives,” said McGuinness.

“Consider the sensory overwhelm that may occur for autistic family members regarding festive twinkling lights, scented candles, musical festive toys, or new soft festive furnishings.”

Christmas jumpers, gifts and the Christmas Day meal

Festive clothing and Christmas jumpers are a Christmas tradition for many, but McGuinness said it can be an “unpleasant experience for many autistic people who may have a preference to wear their usual clothing”.

“Do not insist autistic family members wear festive clothing if it is their preference not to do so,” McGuinness added.

Rather, she encouraged people to create their own family traditions that are meaningful to them.

“Don’t feel compelled to have a ‘traditional’ Christmas experience,” said McGuinness.

“Create unique, meaningful family Christmas traditions and experiences that focus on what is important to you and your Autistic family members.”

Taking to X, Wharmby wrote: “Don’t make us join in family games if we don’t want to.

“A busy family Christmas can be hell for social anxiety, and being forced to play Twister won’t help that.”

When considering Christmas gifts, McGuinness advised to choose gifts that are meaningful to the autistic person.

“Learn about their focused interests and ask what they would like to receive,” she told The Journal.

On choosing gifts, Wharmby adds: “Do take an interest in our presents, especially if they’re related to our special interests.

“I know I always wanted to talk about my new stuff as a child, and it’s a real act of love to sit and listen.”

Meanwhile, McGuinness also noted that for some autistic people, the element of surprise that comes with gift receiving can be overwhelming and that this could be considered in the gift giving and opening.

“Consider not having a strict gift opening and giving schedule,” said McGuinness, “and instead focus on what is best for the autistic person, supporting them to enjoy their gift giving and gift opening on their own terms.”

She also offered advice in terms of gift wrapping and said it may be preferable to not wrap some gifts.

“Sometimes the wrapping on gifts can be overwhelming to autistic family members between the sounds of the paper ripping, the visual nature of festive wrapping and that element of unpredictable surprise – it can all be too much no matter how well intended,” said McGuinness.

Wharmby also reminded people to not get upset if autistic people “don’t react ‘appropriately’ to Christmas treats”.

“Those rules of how people ought to behave don’t make sense to a lot of autistic people,” wrote Wharmby, “and so we may not do what you expect.

“We’re not trying to upset you, we’re probably overwhelmed.”

And while the Christmas Day meal means turkey and ham for many, McGuiness noted that autistic people may prefer to have a meal they would eat on any typical day and that this choice should be respected.

“Being force fed food at Christmas is hardly in the spirit of the season,” adds Wharmby, who added that autistic people should be able to leave the table to “decompress in a quiet room”.

“It might be an important meal,” wrote Wharmby, “but if I know I can get up and decompress in a quiet room whenever, I feel far less stressed.”

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