If Your Neurodivergent Child Struggles To Cope At Christmas, Try These 4 Tips

“If they want ketchup with their lunch, let them have it.”
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Christmas is often touted as the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ – but for those with autism, ADHD and other sensory disorders, it can be over-stimulating and overwhelming. Not exactly a recipe for happiness.

As Michelle Myers, who works for Great Minds Together, a charity supporting young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), previously told HuffPost UK: “It can be a really difficult time.”

But that doesn’t have to mean the festive season is a write-off. A few simple tweaks can ensure your family has a blast and your neurodivergent children are able to take part without feeling stressed.

Here’s what parents and experts suggest.

1. Plan ahead

Chrissa Wadlow, founder of special needs organisation Sunshine Support, told HuffPost UK: “Plan ahead. Think about potential triggers – anxiety, Father Christmas, parties, food or maybe the change in routine – and use visual schedules to create plans with your child.”

She recommends making a calendar for the festive period showing clearly when things are happening – whether it’s events you’ll be attending, the school term ending, decorating the tree or family visits.

“Allow some input into the activities from your child and make sure you give an element of control to ensure that they are doing some activities that they enjoy,” she added.

2. Ensure there are no surprises

While some kids love surprises, Wadlow acknowledged that neurodivergent children tend to find them “extremely stressful”.

As a result, she said: “Make sure there are no surprises. Talk to your child’s school if they’re finding things difficult and work together to manage some of the tricky situations that may arise.”

Routines can be really helpful for autistic people so if you do need to make changes, it’s important to give your child as much warning as possible – “and don’t change too many things at once,” added Myers.

3. Pick your battles

“Does your child REALLY need to be eating the same as everyone else?” asked Wadlow. “If they want ketchup with their lunch, let them have it.”

Myers – who is an autistic woman and mum to autistic children – agrees. In fact, rather than seeing it as a battle you could think of it as shaping a new tradition, instead.

Whether it’s leaving presents unwrapped under the tree because your child has a sensory sensitivity to wrapping paper, or letting them eat their favourite pizza instead of Christmas dinner, her main piece of advice is to “do what works for you”.

“Be unapologetically you and do what brings your family peace and joy this Christmas,” she added.

4. Schedule downtime

We all need downtime over the festive period, but prioritising it for neurodivergent kids is super important.

“Imagine we all have a battery inside us. Some things we do drain our battery, and some things we do charge our battery. December brings with it lots of things that can quickly deplete autistic children’s batteries,” said Myers.

“We need to remember that their little batteries may need more opportunities to charge at this time,” she added. So do schedule time for your family to rest amid the mayhem of the festive period – even on Christmas Day.”

The mum recommended taking a sensory bag, ear defenders, a dark den, their favourite snack or blanket, “whatever works for them” to any family outings.

Wadlow agrees that downtime is crucial. “Christmas can be a magical time of year,” she said. “Just limit expectations and remember to schedule some important downtime.”