Christmas is one of the hardest times of the year for many people with autistic spectrum disorders. The combination of sensory exposure and social exposure can lead to sensory and emotional overload, often without the usual safe spaces to go and decompress because there are so many people present in the house. Equally, Christmas can be an opportunity to travel though some well-rehearsed and pleasing rituals with beautiful sensory experiences. I hate and love Christmas in equal measure.
The natural smells and textures of Christmas are wonderful. The aroma of freshly-cut pine tree, peat burning, candle smoke and incense are comforting. Stroking a pine tree in the right direction is a lovely contrast to stroking against the needles. The warmth of snuggly winter clothes (and the social ease of not getting comments about having too many clothes on, which I get all though the rest of the year) and the textures of well-worn old things brought out only in winter are pleasing. I love the ritual of the candles, the crib, the journey of the three wise men across the room, the decorations that come out only once a year. Our decorations have built up over many years and each tells a little story, but nothing matches – many of the tree decorations are individual gifts from special people. Our angel is one of the kid’s toys, with shining wings of kitchen foil, and there might be some new decoration made each year.
We have our own family rituals including the plate for Santa and his reindeer (a biscuit, a carrot and a drink), from which he leaves a few crumbs, sooty fingerprints and snowy boot-prints across to the tree. We put our tree up as late as we can bear – it used to be Christmas Eve, then a birthday just before Christmas, and now the last weekend before Christmas – and stay up until Epiphany. There is an advent calendar (a collection of miniature, numbered socks) that goes up on the first of December, but that is the only early sign in our house.
Christmas brings some of difficult sensory challenges. The crowds and activity in the shops is hard. Lights and movement are tiring, especially the flicker of poor-quality flashing LED tree lights – an old-fashioned, constant glow is so much more soothing. Catching sight of the bright blue LED lighting at the edge of vision, where the flicker is most visible, can be very off-putting, and the lights that cycle though strange patterns are very annoying – constant light or a plain, slow flash are more calming. Sounds can be irritating, especially repetition of the same Christmas jingles, the horrible narrow frequency range in digital chimes anf the nasty noises from electronic Christmas cards and toys. Debenhams plumbed the depths this year with a 6-note chime at 80 decibels which could be heard the entire length of Patrick Street in Cork (and was set to repeat nearly a quarter of a million times until Christmas day). Synthetic scents like cinnamon candles, many perfumes, cleaning products, cooking smells and other people are hard in winter when windows are shut, the weather is close and there is no safe refuge to escape to.
Christmas can bring a challenge to routine with unexpected guests, last-minute changes to plans and food that doesn’t cook as expected. Attempting to timetable events and knowing the outline plan for the next day is helpful – some days can include an element of surprise, or of interchangeable events that can be swapped around according to convenience.
We don’t have a timetable (exactly), but have an unbroken routine. The children find their stockings, which were empty when they went to bed, stuffed with nuts, tangerines and something small to amuse them until breakfast. Our breakfast is light and followed by opening the presents. The cat is demonstrating how the process, the wrapping, the container and the sentiment are as important as the content.
Our Christmas dinners have evolved over the years, around a central theme of Chinese-style crispy duck with pancakes. We use Chinese wheat pancakes and wheat-free rice wraps, and have added some quick-fried cabbage, Brussels sprouts with wood-ear mushrooms, crisp roasted potatoes, in a nod towards 5 portions of vegetables. I could easily eat anything for dinner, but it does need to be signalled in advance. (It really helps with visiting other people if they say what they intend to eat).
We have no commercial products or logos, and it is a pleasure to take out all the familiar decorations and find ways to display them. We are fairly sparse with our decorations, but usually make space for something the kids make or friends give.
Winter is a beautiful time for walking. I love the death and decay of the old year, the piles of old leaves and husks from the nuts. Just as Christmas is a time where the old year ends and old clothes have to be passed on to make space for new, the foliage and growth has to die back ready for the new. If the weather is clear then we walk off our Christmas dinner.
The promise of the new year is often evident already – this fat little robin was at Atlantic Pond and the toadstools were on the North Quays, both on Stephen’s Day. The break in the middle of winter is a good time to think about what to leave behind in the old year and what new things are coming ahead.
With care and planning, and an awareness of the effect of sensory experiences and changes in routine, Christmas can be a magical and exciting time.