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  • Sandhya Menon

Change The Holiday Conversation Around Autistic Children

You've seen the posts. A quick Google search yields me the following results:

"How to survive the holiday season"

"Avoiding Meltdowns at Christmas"

"The challenges of the holidays"

"Having your autistic child on holiday can be a stressful experience"

This one hit me in the guts - " The holiday season is supposed to be the most magical time of year, but for parents of children with autism, it can present certain challenges."


As a society, we really need to talk. We need to do better. I don't see this being written about neurotypical children.

Christmas is a magical time for ALL. And if it's not magical? It's often a lack of understanding and accommodations that lead to the stressful experiences.

Repeated over time, this leads to a schema being built, which is a cognitive framework that we use to organise our experiences. A log of all the unaccommodated Christmases gets built into a child's mind, of all the times they felt stressed and overwhelmed and undercatered for at the dinner table, and can lead to the "Bah Humbug" mentality. Over time, our autistic children feel stressed leading up to Christmas. And no, not because they're autistic, but because they've been traumatised by Christmas.

The conversation needs to move away from "Avoiding Meltdowns" to "Creating Meaningful Neurodivergent Family Traditions". The content may be similar, but the language shift is powerful.

How can we create magic for our neurodivergent children?

Now THAT'S the question. Why are there not more blog posts being written about this?

Here are some ideas:

1) Ask them what they want to do.

This is still a revolutionary idea for our generation that grew up with the idea of "children should be seen but not heard" but in creating unique family traditions, let's start with the children. What do they feel would be magical for them?

Is it matching Peter Alexander Christmas PJs? Or is it morning rudie nudie in the house?

Is it going to see the lights?

Is it in making an epic playlist and having a private karaoke session?

Is it only ever doing the big outings for an hour before calling it quits and driving back home?

Let's do that.

2) Safe foods, but make it festive.

What are their favourite foods? Let's decorate that! I've seen some epic chicken nugget trees.

3) Out with the sensory overload.

Oof, popping those crackers hurt my ears every time. And WHY? Is that joke really worth it? One of my favourite traditions is hiding an epic joke that I've heard and written personally under the napkin. 1, 2, 3, we all pull it away and read it. No loud bangs, no unpredictable lead up, just good ol' fashioned fun.

This may also mean that some traditions that we've been used to changes, such as opening all the presents at once. Some nice family traditions I've heard of is getting to unwrap one present per hour so that a child can fully engage with the present they have and have the time to process it before moving on to the next one.

4) In with the sensory fun.

Perhaps tinsel was made to be played with first instead of going up on the tree. And adults, let's admit it. It IS so much more fun watching them pretend to be a fashionista trotting up and down the hallway sashaying the tinsel than it is having the perfect tree.

Christmas in Australia may not be a good time for cuddling up by the fireplace with creepy Christmas music [yes, you know the song I'm talking about], but it is an epic time to crack out the water hose and get some quality water play in.

5) Do we have to?

Santa photos. Don't want to do them, don't have to do them. There, I said it. Our family went years without Santa photos because the children were uncomfortable, and that's okay. It's not a big gap in their Christmas memory and they have plenty of other safe, genuinely happy festive moments in the photobook. Also, the social distancing that COVID has brought can be a right blessing so we don't have to interact with strangers who we hardly know.

While we're talking about social activities, can we see that relative another time? Because the social overload of Christmas can be what contributes to a negative schema being built as well where we predict overwhelm, chaos and burnout before it even begins. If we absolutely can't, let's normalise our neurodivergent children having a safe space to go to in the house where they can do what suits them and makes them happy.

So if the past two years of 2020 and 2021 has taught us anything, it's that what we think has to be a certain way can absolutely, 100% change.

Let's start changing the conversation. Let's lean into making Christmas an absolute magical time of year for our children and the whole family.

Merry, merry Christmas, from my family to yours.

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