Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Simple Things - Autism Spectrum Conditions and Christmas

In so many ways we overcomplicate life. Classifying, compartmentalising and upgrading. Especially upgrading and constantly "improving". It's just so easy to get caught up in the hype - especially at Christmas. But the big irony is that we actually over complicate the very things we seek to simplify and in the process build a fragile system which can all to easily malfunction. This is particularly true for those on the Autism Spectrum.

We constantly kid ourselves that greater choice brings greater satisfaction and streamlined simplicity. Or that complex but "efficient" solutions which are anything but robust are "progress". But it's largely an illusion, and precipitates huge amounts of stress for many of us on so many levels - particularly at Christmas.

Christmas is a hugely stressful time for anyone living with Autism. Someone who dislikes excitement, change and overwhelming complexity. Cannot cope with increased stimulation, expectation or change. Sometimes it is SO important to go "back to basics" at this time of year, with a few additional simple additions to veer the focus off the "Big Day".

Every year H begins to struggle at school around this time, behaviour slips, his anxiety is constantly high meaning the slightest trigger sends him into the stratosphere, in the mother of all meltdowns which invariably seems to continue for days. A "Christmas Special" if you like. He definitely likes Christmas - or some aspects of it - but the lack of routine, change and excitement around him overwhelms him.

I'm not sure whether this is worse or better because he is so high functioning. He is definitely more aware, more keen to be like everyone else and more involved. But there is no doubt that he struggles to cope. This is his first Christmas at High School and there is significantly less hype than at Primary School for which we are particularly grateful, but there is still considerable discussion around Christmas, presents and activities and I can see him feeling out of control. To be honest I do empathise, since I'm not a great Christmas fan either - but that's the control freak in me. So much to do and life seems put on hold until January....

There are some great tips for Christmas from the National Autistic Society which we pretty much follow, and general advice here. Every child is different and you will need to tailor suggestions to you child - but don't assume the simple things won't work.

I remember the moment I realised that PECS might work brilliantly for my (very) verbal son. We had been led to believe that nothing more than a visual timetable was likely to help since he had language - words. But at times of anxiety - or when a child is "full up" with any feeling there is little room for communication. (see below, apologies for scrappy diagram!)

It's very difficult for a child who is extremely anxious or mid meltdown to communicate (which is why no one should expect a child with Autism to discuss their feelings when they are mid-meltdown...) and it was a revelation to me that something designed for non verbal children could really help my son when he was anxious.

Every time we went out I would prepare a key chain of pictures to help reassure him. Picture sequences starting with home - and ending with home, with a picture of each event along the way. Likewise for anything unusual I would do the same, like a portable visual timetable which he could thumb through for reassurance. It worked really, really well.

I was reminded of this when I went upstairs to wake him up for school yesterday. 

Falling to sleep is currently a massive problem, he is very often awake beyond midnight and therefore currently very difficult to get up for school. (This is in stark contrast to the not-very-distant days of leaping out of bed at 5am to shout and scream, so I can't complain really!) Whilst waking him up is not easy, getting him up is night on impossible. We've tried everything, special breakfasts downstairs, TV time when he's ready etc etc but nothing works well. Yet today - and yesterday, he leapt out of bed enthusiastically.


Because he has a chocolate Advent Calendar. It's in his room where he can see it, but not close enough to his bed.

Such a simple thing, a tiny incentive which cuts to the chase at the precise moment you need it to. One of those lightbulb moments when you feel you are getting somewhere. So I'm contemplating buying eleven more of these to see us through until next year's calendars come out, both to help H but also to remind myself how such a simple solution can work miracles.

Because I'm often trying too hard, aiming too high, complicating the problem instead of focussing on the solution. 

It's certainly a life lesson for me. Hopefully we can turn around the current ramping up of anxiety-driven challenging behaviour and have a Happy, SIMPLE Christmas.

Now part of the Special Needs Round up Christmas Link


  1. It's fascinating to read about the world of other families and situations you know nothing about. It sounds like you've got plenty of great strategies and plans for difficult times in place and I think you should buy another 11 advent calendars if it makes getting up easier!!

  2. I don't think schools realise what their decisions do to children sometimes. Today they have requested the children dress up but even before school there have been melt downs in the playground. I know all the preparations for the Christmas concert will start soon and it seems the normal timetable just goes out of the window!

  3. I am with Ness on this. Maxi would not be considered to be on the spectrum but he hates dressing up. You are THE best person for your son and I love all the strategies you have to help him.

  4. It is very hard at times like Christmas when you have a child with autism and with all the noise and disrupted routine it can be very stressful, my daughter is 15 and still has anxiety over the Christmas period.


  5. My son with autism also finds it very hard to get to sleep and is impossible to wake so I will try try out the advent calendar incentive. Unexpectedly he copes better with the build up to Christmas than his neurotypical brother. As much as I adore Christmas I dread the mood swings and tantrums that December brings and I look forward to Boxing day when he is back to is normal self. I will see if simplifying things helps to maintain an even mood for him x

  6. I am glad high school is helping matters. I have pinned this post.

  7. Really interesting post, I've never actually thought about it before but I can totally see why this time of year could be really stressful for someone with autism - especially when they make such a big thing out of it in primary school (and when it gets spread over half the year!! lol). The chocolate advent calendar sounds great, if it works it works and fab that you can keep it simple! x

  8. I always think that the run up to Christmas (and isn't it LONG these days?) can be really difficult for kids. I hadn't considered factoring in autism as well.

  9. This is really interesting. Two months of disruption and excitement is quite a lot for many small kids to deal with (mine included) but I can't imagine what its like having to factor in autism too. I love getting excited and really into all the festivity and I've had to remember to balance things out a bit to avoid meltdowns. Hope the advent calendar keeps on working for you!

  10. I couldn't leave a chocolate advent calendar in their bedrooms - it wouldn't last two minutes!!

  11. some great tips there - I'm sure that many will find them really useful xx

  12. Couldn't agree more. Simple is often the best. I like that little diagram too, just put into perspective my feelings at the moment x

  13. Really good tips and a great insight in to some of the issues you face as a family. I'm sure so many people will be happy fo ryou highlighting them.


Many thanks for taking the time to comment, I really value your responses.

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