Disabilities and additional needs - Parents top tips for dealing with the festive season.

Northants Parent Forum group are a group of parents / carers who all have children with disabilities and additional needs. They work closely with Northants County Council and the Health services to ensure service provision is what the families in Northamptonshire need. They have given some “Top Tips” for dealing with the festive season if you have young people with Autism / Aspergers / ADHD.

They would be keen to hear from you via their website www.northantspfg.co.uk

Jane Mother to Ben age 19:
‘My son has autism with severe learning difficulties and is fairly non-verbal. Unusually for someone with autism he loves everything about Christmas with all the lights and noise. His difficulty is waiting for it to arrive.

Top tips for this –
Devise a system they can understand to do a long countdown, we have to start in November as 1st December is the start for him
Any devices can be used, home-made or calendars, advent calendars which show the countdown (chocolate ones are fine in conjunction but because they are mixed up they don’t show them the big day getting nearer).
Once a routine is set for Christmas Eve and Day be prepared to have to follow it every year, my 19 year old still has to put out stuff for Santa and expects the sack of presents at the end of his bed.’

Kim Mother to Josh 16:
“We use very basic family at home social stories, anyone wishing to use a social story must make/adapt one to reflect exactly what the day is going to be like for the child. Obviously things happen outside of our control but it must be as accurate as possible or it could make things worse as you have given them a very visual concrete story that is then incorrect and could then cause immense anxiety and lack of understanding.  They have been amazing for Josh. I very clearly remember the hell we went through and then the first year his teacher suggested one (he was 11), it was the first Christmas since he was about 2 that we actually managed to enjoy, which obviously when you have siblings in the house too is quite literally life changing for them.

Tracie Mother to Daryl age 7:
Daryl has ADHD below are some things that work for Daryl.
1. Try you best to maintain normal routine, bedtime, lunch time.
2. Continue planning your trips ahead of time if its a busy day try to space out the day, making sure your child has a rest period some time in the day, also try not to have to many late nights visiting people.
3. Have a Christmas movie family night/afternoon - have fun snacks once a week up to Christmas.
4. Get your child involved making writing cards. I also get my child to post them too, make  xmas decorations or xmas cooking cookies
5. Rewards and consequences are still in place before entering shops etc.
6. Down time day, letting the child have some time just chilling out at home doing what they would like to while you can do online shopping instead.
7. Still continue with warning what is going to happen today tomorrow later.
8. I use a holiday calendar and we write on what is happening and we always read this before bed and in the morning.
9. I use a count down calendar printed off the internet and my child colours in each day or sometimes we use xmas stickers to cover the day then count how many days left.
10. Lots of positive communication  and hugs throughout  the day , I buy some 99p toys sweets for them to wrap up whilst I’m wrapping I let my child get involved and wrap up their present .

Jane Mother to Thomas age 9:
Christmas time with causes anxiety and sensory overload in a child with ASD. Behaviours and meltdowns increase, sleep goes out the window and all the things that normally help support your child don't work as well. We are nearly 3years post Thomas' diagnosis and the things that I have found that help us survive Christmas are:

* The 'Plan' (visual timetable) is key at all times but more so during the festive period
* TIMETABLE CHRISTMAS DAY - this has revolutionised Christmas for us - we have a 'flow chart' of the day with present opening spread across the day.
* Regular downtime.
* Reduce social interaction for your child - allow them to disappear into a world of headphones / minecraft / DVD - whatever it takes to help them get through
* Limit surprises by sharing what presents they have - don't even wrap or wrap in clear paper
* Reduce expectations of your child, yourself and of the time of year and enjoy the Christmas you can all manage.
* Educate your friends & family about how Christmas can be a trigger for your child.
And Finally:
* Look after yourself and put yourself first at least once... (Yes I know! My friends are all laughing at me giving that advice!) Roll on the 8th Jan and Routine... beautiful, normal routine :-)

Some more tips from parents involved with the National Autistic society:


  1. Look at the world of Christmas through your child’s eyes. What aspects of Christmas would they enjoy? Incorporate one of these into his daily schedule, billed perhaps as 'his daily Christmas activity', something perhaps that your other children could either observe or do alongside him.
  2.  Which aspects of Christmas would overload them and which might be avoided?Could some take place in a bedroom, eg could the Christmas tree be put in a bedroom? If your other children have separate bedrooms , they could perhaps decorate their bedrooms and make them the Christmas zones in your house, rather than communal areas, such as the living room. This will greatly reduce any sensory overload and anxiety about the changes in your house for your child.
  3. Give some Christmas-free time on the schedule each day.This can be helpful for you to observe level’s of anxiety and make any adaptations you need to preparations for the rest of the day.
  4.  Receiving presents can be overwhelming and confusing for people with autism.One idea would be to introduce toy time on your child's daily schedule and put out a new toy next to a favourite toy. This way your child isn't overloaded with new toys all in one go. Consider leaving them unwrapped, unless your child specifically likes the sensation of unwrapping presents. Try giving your child one new toy a day, instead of giving  all the presents at once. You could introduce a time/activity symbol on the schedule each day, when he can play with a new toy.
  5. Use advent calendars to help you get through the Christmas period.The advent calendar could help your child be aware of upcoming events and prepare them for daily changes. You could have a photo of a trip you are going to make and show them how many days (or, as some people say, sleeps) until you will be visiting this place. It can be used to show home days and school days to prepare for the end-of-term.
  6. Give your child quiet time with a favourite activity at key moments for your other children, such as when they are opening their presents.Could your child play on the computer or watch a favourite DVD in a Christmas-free zone at these times?
  7. Utilise friends and family at key Christmas moments.When your other children want to write Christmas letters, practise for their Christmas plays or decorate the tree (and if your child doesn't wish to be involved in these activities), ask a friend to watch your child undertaking a favourite activity eg, playing on the computer. Or you might want to watch your child  while grandparents or friends undertake Christmas activities with your other children.
  8. Liaise with school. Ask your child's teacher how he or she prepares your child for Christmas.Try to incorporate the same strategies and symbols at home. By trying to keep them the same, your child may be less anxious. If you use different symbols and strategies, they may think school Christmas and home Christmas are two different things and become doubly-overloaded!
  9. Christmas Day Whatever Christmas period changes you have introduced, don't change them on Christmas Day. Keep the schedule the same as far as possible. It is important to think about Christmas changes as early as possible and then try to prepare your child for these. You could have six pictures of their bed and then a photo of the relative who is coming to stay: six sleeps and then Nana comes, for example. Each day you could remove or cross through one of the pictures of the bed.
  10. Father ChristmasSometimes the sight of a man dressed as Father Christmas can make children on the autism spectrum scream and run in the opposite direction. If you are taking your child to a Christmas event, it may be wise to prepare him for the fact he might see a man dressed in a red suit by showing him a photo of a man dressed in a Santa suit.

What The National Autistic Society says:

These readers have pretty much covered everything, we'd say. We might add that, when putting up decorations, it is important to involve the person, even if they don't want to put them up themselves. Doing it within eye-shot, or making them aware in another way that it is happening, is important.

Returning home to find a tree in the middle of the room can be a bit of a shock!

Also, if your child is becoming obsessive about Christmas, you might try to set boundaries around the obsession. Read our information sheet: Obsessions, repetitive behaviours and routines.

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