For many people on the autism spectrum, the busyness and social nature of the lead up to Christmas and the end of the year can prove too much.
There’s the changes in routine, particularly at school. There’s the party and function invitations. There’s photos with Santa and with family and friends.
Not to mention the general overstimulation that seems to be everywhere and affects everyone.
No wonder the majority of our ASD kids struggle at this time of year.
My two eldest kids go through the Christmas season with different perspectives which results in different anxieties and coping mechanisms.
I wanted to focus on each of their experiences today to demonstrate the many faces of autism through the silly season and how hard this time of year can be on any of our kids, regardless of how they appear to be coping or managing.
Matilda LOVES Christmas and the fun of the end of year. She wants to be social, unlike her brother, but she struggles to know HOW to be social at times. While she rarely demonstrates any anxiety prior to an event, it is there nevertheless and usually manifests itself in meltdowns and periods of unsettledness afterwards.
Over the last month her need for oral stimulation has increased. After a few months where her need to chew had decreased, she is back to chewing on her collar or her sleeve or on the tie of her dress.
She’s also very emotional at the moment both at school and at home. She will have a meltdown at the slightest request from us, such as “will you please get ready for your shower?” She is also becoming unreasonably upset when we move her onto a new task or coax her to leave a social gathering.
Her anxieties manifest themselves at night as she struggles to settle herself and process her experiences. Over the last month her sleep has been affected and she is restless again and suffering nightmares. I must say, her weighted blanket and weighted pillow pet have been lifesavers – without them I’m sure we would be experiencing more problems in settling her down at night.
The problem with Matilda is that she rarely appears to have ASD – she is very clever at following what others do and fitting in at school and when out and about. Most people are extremely surprised to hear of her diagnosis which sometimes makes me second guess everything we’ve been through up until this point.
However, at home, we see the struggles. She has periods of non-communication as she gets lost in her own world (often to the point where she forgets to go to the toilet). She gets easily frustrated and has an over-emotional response when we ask her to complete simple tasks around the house. She is tired, oh so tired, yet fights sleep as she fears the thoughts and worries that creep into her mind when she rests.
It may not be obvious to others but my Matilda is again struggling with the demands of the season this year.
Gilbert makes no secret of his displeasure for most social situations. He would rather be home watching ABC3 or his favourite DVDs over and over again or reading the best parts of his favourite books or wandering about the backyard playing his game.
Unlike Matilda, his anxieties are very obvious prior to any social outing and afterwards he sometimes takes a while to recover enough to resume normal life. It is always a struggle to encourage him to look upon an outing with any sort of anticipation and at christmas time this struggle always becomes infinitely worse.
He thrives on routine and has struggled with the many changes that occur at the end of the school year, both at school and at home. I have already had to allow him to stay at home a couple of days over the last few weeks or collect him from school earlier than usual due to his increased levels of anxiety and stress.
Gilbert’s anxieties manifest themselves in verbal complaints, yelling and screaming. He will often run away from us when we try to talk him through the day and prepare him for what’s to come. We have learned to balance outings where we can so that he can have the periods of down-time at home that he so desperately craves.
It can be difficult to balance their separate needs at this time of year but we do our best. On weekends we try to have one outing and at at least one day entirely at home to give them the chance to reset and recharge. During the week, I am trying to minimise our extra-curricular commitments so we are not all rushing about and thereby increasing anxiety levels.
I have a visual calendar in place too so they can see what is going on and what we need to do each day. I can’t control what happens at school but I am trying to give them a little more certainty about what happens at home.
And I will give them a day at home if they are truly distressed and unable to cope. While I always try to get them to school and to fully participate when there, sometimes it is best to give them a break.
Do you have kids with autism? What are the main struggles for you? And what strategies do you put in place to survive autism and the silly season?