Advent – Preparing for Christmas
Christmas is all about preparation, right? Preparing for school concerts, end-of-year gym displays, Christmas cooking, present shopping, decorating the Christmas tree, hanging the wreath on the front door, writing Christmas cards (if you’re super-organised, which I used to be…) It’s a combination of preparing for the end of the school year (if you have kids), for Christmas Day and for end-of-year work celebrations. With so much preparation, surely kids with ASD and their families would be well positioned to cope with all that the Christmas season entails?
Well, it ain’t necessarily so.
When I was growing up, preparing for Christmas was always a time of great excitement for our family. We played Christmas music, made paper chains, prepared our own family presents, helped Mum make shortbread to our Grandma’s recipe, stirred the pudding and decorated the Christmas tree together.
Ah – the Christmas tree decorating. For me, this was central to our Christmas traditions. I remember there were special ornaments that my brothers, sister and I liked to hang. Each one told a story. Each had a special box or wrapping in the old suitcase where Mum still keeps the Christmas tree ornaments. I remember shopping with Mum and my aunt for the angel which has graced the top of the family Christmas tree for decades now. There was an element of generational continuity.
Creating traditions – where fantasy meets reality
So when I had children, I was determined to create my own Christmas traditions with them. Cooking, making paper chains, tree decorating. Getting them involved in making presents for each other and the wider family. I had built up a lovely collection of special ornaments and I was excited about sharing their stories and hanging them with my kids. I encouraged them to make their own decorations. I planned presents they could all help to make. I looked up my Grandma’s shortbread and gingerbread recipes, and found an awesome new recipe to begin a new Christmas dessert tradition. But Christmas with my family hasn’t quite turned out like my Christmas fantasies.
You see, while Christmas is a time of preparation, it is also a time of great change, and sensory challenges. Three of my kids have autism, so this can be hard to manage. As the kids get older, and have more “practice” at the whole Christmas thing, it’s becoming easier. But it has taken me more than five years to not feel the loss of having all of them engage in some way with the cooking, decorating or other preparations. Even now, after all that “practice”, I still feel wistful that I don’t have all my Wombats about me when we put up the Christmas tree on the first day of Advent. But I’ve learned to be more accepting and understanding.
Christmas is sensational – but maybe not in a good way
Some of the challenges are sensory. For example, Dancing Wombat has all sorts of sensory and motor issues. Hanging ornaments is a fiddly business. This can be hard for her. Add to this the physical sensation of our plastic Christmas tree, which she finds prickly. Honestly, I don’t think a real tree would make any difference, and I just can’t come at chopping a whole tree down to be a glorified flower in a vase.
As well as this, the whole decorating gig is too time-consuming for her to manage, and my goodness – the decision-making involved is crippling. Where does she put the ornaments? Which does she choose to hang?
I have learned to select a small number of ornaments for her to hang, chosen for being pleasant to handle and easily hung. I suggest places she can put them, encouraging her to make a choice from a more limited range of options. At least this gets her a bit involved, if only for a few minutes.
Train Wombat just doesn’t seem to be interested in the tree. I haven’t fathomed why. It’s just him. And that’s okay. I miss him being with us when we decorate the tree, as for me it is such a family-centred time. However, if he’s not into it, then forcing him isn’t respecting his feelings. In any case, have you ever tried to persuade a surly teen to do something they don’t want to do? It just sours the experience for everyone. You need to choose wisely where to direct your energy. What’s the end goal? What will be the most positive outcome for all?
Christmas is full of surprises. That’s good, right?
I love the element of surprise – not knowing what’s under the wrapping. Two of my Wombats are the opposite. Years ago, I discovered that one of them had surreptitiously unwrapped their gift before Christmas Day – just enough for a sneak peak. I was so annoyed and upset that I started leaving the name tags off the presents, to keep them guessing.
On reflection, that must have been akin to mental torture for them. I haven’t decided what I’ll do this year. In a sense, if the kids know what they’re likely to be getting, perhaps there’s not much point wrapping the present. But like the tree, wrapping the presents was a big part of Christmas for me. Besides, we might always add a little something…!
Sometimes, a surprise can be a seemingly little thing with big consequences. I was chatting to Dancing Wombat about putting up the Christmas tree this week. We are now the happy owners of a piano, which is ensconced where the Christmas tree has stood for the past 5 years. So, the tree will go in our family room instead. Dancing Wombat’s reaction? “Let’s skip the tree”.
Me: No, sweetheart. We can just put it in the family room.
DW: Can we move the piano?
Me: No, it’s too heavy.
DW: When are we going to move the piano?
Me: We’re not.
DW: But you said we would!
Me: No, I didn’t.
DW: Can we move the piano?
DW: When are we going to do that again?
Me: (Deep breath) We’re not. The piano is too heavy to move. The tree is lighter, so it will move.
DW: Can we put it next to the window?
Me: No, the piano’s there.
DW: Can we put it behind the piano?
Me: No, there’s no room.
DW: But how are we going to put presents under?
Me: The same way that we always do. Just, the tree will be in a different place.
DW: Let’s skip the tree.
Christmas celebrations – reality checks might be needed
I’m happy to have people over at Christmas, and value the rare opportunity to catch up with my cousins and their kids. But again, this can just become overwhelming for my own children, who have different views about my relatives. With family over last Boxing Day, the only boxing I felt like doing was to one of my children’s ears. For whatever reason, he was not able or prepared to give a little of himself at a time when this would have been really appreciated. Yet – sensory overload, an inability to get into his own quiet space, to wind down after the social agendas of Christmas Day? Maybe, maybe not.
School concerts are a similar issue. Do they have to go? To all of them? On first principles, I’d say, “Yes”, to support your sibling. But as the Wombats get older, I’m learning to look at the situation and offer a choice. I might say, “I’d really like you to go to support your brother/sister and they’d love to have you there. But think about whether you’ll manage. I’ll understand if you think it’s too much.”
That has been a big shift for me, and I’m still learning.
It’s trite, but Christmas is a time of giving. I want my kids to think about what they can give others for Christmas, not just what they might be given. As younger children, it was easier to marshal them into collective present-making for the family. As they get older, this isn’t as easy. One Wombat prepares well ahead and clearly takes much joy in the planning. One doesn’t seem to think about it until the last minute. The other two are happy in principle to do this, but need a lot of direction and physical help. I wish I had another “me” to manage all this. I wish they would be more self-directed. I wish… But being practical gets outcomes. So I’m trying to get organised earlier..
Christmas cheer and challenges
Christmas certainly has its challenges for us neurotypicals. That’s even before you look at deeper social issues like poverty, loneliness and homelessness, which are thrown into stark relief at this time of most conspicuous consumption and festivities. But my focus here is on some of the challenges for people on the spectrum. You might be aware of them already. You might have some to add. You might know people who would find this list helpful.
- Flashy, brilliantly-lit Christmas decorations. A thing of glittery beauty to you might be someone else’s visual overload.
- Massive social overload can be an issue, even – perhaps especially – if these people are your relatives.
- Not everyone likes surprises. The wrapping might just have to go.
- Christmas trees – they’re prickly! More sensory issues here. Decorating the tree might not be fun for your child.
- Where will the tree go this year? Pick a place and try to stick to it – if you can!
- Don’t worry if younger children don’t want a cuddle with Santa at your local shopping centre. When else do we encourage them to cuddle up to a complete stranger and share their most heartfelt desires? Besides, big fluffy beard and funny outfit. Sensory alert!
- Shopping with your children. At Christmas time, it’s busier, brighter, louder. Queues are longer. If shopping already presents challenges, they escalate.
- If you’re a church-goer, Christmas traditions may not be unalloyed fun for the kids. There can be changes to the services. Lighting the Advent Candles, special carols services, carols in the park. Joyous and enriching for you if you’re a singer – as I am – but not necessarily for them.
- Here in Australia, it’s the end of the school year and kids are just tired, tired, tired from managing the whole social agenda. When they’ve just geared down from school, they have to crunch the gears from neutral to fifth again, to get through Christmas Day.
The Christmas lights and music are here to stay. But we can educate the broader community about these challenges. We can help our kids prepare by understanding their needs better. In this season of hope and goodwill, we have a role to help build a more accepting, helpful and less judgmental community around us.
Until next time, Happy Wombatting!