A parent’s guide to surviving the festive season

As the countdown to Christmas begins, Emma from the charity Scope has put together some top tips for taking the stress out of the weeks ahead. All these tips have been shared by parents of disabled children on Scope’s online community.

Christmas tree

Crowded house

I've started to prepare my son for a crowded house at Christmas by inviting his friends around for Sunday Club and making a party for the family to have dinner or a disco. Announce visitors on your child's visual timetable. Allow quiet time if they need to step out.

It’s a wrap

Give wrapping paper to play with ahead of Christmas, cut, tear etc... so your child gets comfortable with the noise and look of it.

Prepare ahead

For us it’s all about preparing our son for the changes coming up. We start early, talking to him about what to expect. He doesn’t like surprises.

Create a plan

Print off a week-to-view calendar page and add a picture of your planned activities during the Christmas holidays (divide into morning, lunch afternoon etc) and this will help put your child at ease about the plans for the week.

Make special time for your kids

It's easy to get overloaded with Christmas preparations at this time of year, so make some special time for your kids, ie 5 to 10 mins of undivided attention. Let your child take the lead, tune into their world and see it through their eyes.

Read all about it

Our daughter loves looking at pictures and we have found it a great way of explaining different events to her. We have a Christmas book we've made with pictures of her and the family doing things at Christmas. We've included pictures of the tree, her in the school play, us all putting decorations up, etc. It helps her not to get overwhelmed with what's going on.

Use it as a teaching opportunity

Help and encourage your child to give gifts. This provides an excellent opportunity to work on social skills, like thinking of other people's needs and interests, and being kind and helpful. I support my daughter to make gifts for her family and friends. She also looks forward to actually giving out the presents as well.

Toy libraries

Toy libraries often have sensory toys and equipment for disabled children you can borrow over the Christmas period. Find your local toy library at http://www.netmums.com/local-to-you/local/index/indoor-play/toy-libraries

Decorate gradually

Don't put up the decorations when your child is sleeping – if possible, get them involved. Try and gradually introduce changes into their environment, first introducing the Christmas lights for sensory play.

Create a Christmas-free zone

Leave one room in the house, probably your child's room, free from anything to do with Christmas, so he/she can come back to the room as a 'safe place' when necessary.

Spice up the playdough

Add cinnamon to your child's playdough to gradually introduce the new smells. Child receiving a Christmas present

Gift ideas

If family and friends are struggling for ideas for Christmas presents, email them a link to a website of sensory toys or ask for cash which you can put together to buy that (probably) expensive toy!

Minimise surprises

Wrap up some old favourite toys as Christmas presents if your child is not keen on opening presents which have new and unfamiliar things in them. You can secretly hide some favourite things in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Sometimes unwrapping something familiar is very reassuring!

Foil wrap

Foil is an excellent wrapping paper. It is very sensory and makes for an easy to open present!

Have a whip round

Friends and family never seem to know what to get George for Christmas and what they do give him nearly always ends up getting broken or ignored. So this year I've suggested they contribute towards buying him a tablet, which he will definitely use. I think they're quite relieved not to have the stress of choosing something for him.

Prep your extended family

Talk to family members ahead of time. Discuss your child's specific needs, and gently but firmly tell them what your plans are. Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone. Ask for their support.

Pack a backpack

Fill a backpack with things your child finds comforting or enjoys playing with - toy cars, a stuffed animal, a CD and CD player, or a few books. If they get overstimulated, find a quiet corner or a back room and pull out the backpack.

Plan in advance

I used to worry about Dan's behaviour when spending time at family member's homes over the festive season. Basically, I'd take him and hope for the best! However, I've found that planning and preparation in advance hugely helps. I work with my family and we make sure we have a calm room or a space he can go to for when it all gets too much. I put his favourite blanket in there. Having some time alone, or just with me keeps meltdowns to a minimum.

Hold off on the perfume

One thing that people with Autism often complain about during Christmas is the many different perfume smells coming from visiting adults – ask your family and friends to hold off on the perfume!

Wrap up something familiar

Luke can’t really cope with opening presents - or will do one or two then run away. So we wrap up his favourite big monkey which he always finds funny.

Give them a job

I always give my sons, who both have ASD, 'jobs' to do at Christmas – eg: take coats, offer nibbles round etc. Giving them something to do reduces their stress of having people in the house.

Create an itinerary

I give my son an itinerary so he understands, for eg, that people stand around and chat a lot, and that is part of the occasion.

Don't rise to criticism

Ignore well-meaning ‘advice’ from family members. Remember, it bothers you more than it does your child. You know best what your child needs, and providing it is your responsibility. Try and stay focused on your child.

Help yourself

Putting food onto large plates/ bowls and letting the family help themselves has saved my sanity re Christmas dinner. My adult son with ASD is very fussy about different foods being on the same plate. This way, he chooses what he wants to eat and actually will try one thing at a time.

A gift’s not just for Christmas

Don't feel all the presents have to be opened on Christmas morning in the traditional way. Our son would get so overwhelmed he couldn't cope, so we find it much easier to give him a few gifts at a time over Christmas and Boxing Day. He opens them all in the end without any tantrums and is much calmer and happier, meaning we all have a far more enjoyable time!

Ready to go gifts

When we give our daughter a gift, we make sure all packaging is removed, batteries are in, and it is set up ready to use as soon as she's unwrapped it. For someone with limited attention and suspicion of new things it can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Stay calm!

If your child reacts badly to stress, staying relaxed and low-key over the Christmas period is one of the best things you can do to keep your child's behavior in line. Save the tantrum (yours) for when you get home. These tips were all contributed by parents of disabled children. Find more great tips like these, and share your own on Scope’s online community
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