Christmas through the Eyes of an Autistic

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago: that wonderful, magical time of year, filled with music, food, family, shopping, parang and merriment. But for those on the autism spectrum, this can be a time filled with anxiety and frustration simply due to the nature of the season. Here we take a look at some of the key areas of concern and how it can be made a little smoother for everyone.

At this time of year, everything is louder, bigger, more intense. The crowds in the malls are thick; parang and soca are streaming from the neighbours’ houses; the smell of ham and bread baking in your kitchen, sorrel being made next door and curry from two doors down. What does all of this mean for the child on the autism spectrum? The perfect recipe for a meltdown!

Parents, if you know your child’s particular triggers, see if there is any way they can be minimised. Would sound reducing headphones help? If there is a noisy activity that happens at a regular time, maybe you can use that time to take a drive to get ice cream. Go to the mall at 10AM instead of 3PM. Sometimes talking to your child and letting them know that these activities are a possibility can help in preparing them and it may give them the opportunity to express their feelings. None of these are fool proof. But it’s important to try and see what happens. And be prepared that what worked last year Christmas may not work this year. Know that as much as kiddo loves going by Grandma on any other day of the year, it may be akin to world war 3 when you go at Christmas time. Friends and family, if you know one of your guests is on the spectrum, perhaps you can clear a room specifically for their use. Very often, children can regroup and recharge if they know they have a quiet, dimmed safe zone that they can escape to.

Another matter is food. Autistic children often have major food aversions and their diet can be very repetitive and rigid. I always make sure that my son eats before we leave home and I usually have snacks with me in case the fare provided is not to his standards. Please don’t take this personally when he says he’s not hungry. Firstly, that’s his polite way of saying that he will not eat your food under any circumstances. Secondly, as his parent, I don’t want to put you through any more trouble than necessary. However, if the next time you invite us, you would like to make sure and prepare something specifically for him, understand that your ego cannot be invested in what you have made. We will need for you to prepare exactly what we tell you, exactly as we tell you. Their senses are often so heightened that white rice instead of the basmati rice we advised can trigger a meltdown.

Who doesn’t love presents, especially at Christmas time? Before we go shopping, let’s think about this through the eyes of an autistic. Rigidity and repetition govern their behaviour which means they may fixate on a particular character or activity for years. For over four years, my son was utterly obsessed with Lightning McQueen. Now you might think “all 5 year old boys like toy trucks” and you’ve visited our home and seen that he has every possible item of Lightning McQueen already. But that’s not the point. He would have appreciated a $10 pack of Lightning McQueen stickers more than the $1000 truck you splurged on and for that moment, he would be happy. And isn’t that the point of getting presents. Forget about your preconceived notions. Ask what kiddo wants and get that! Even if it means an Elsa doll for an 18 year old girl or My Little Pony for a 5 year old boy.

As with any other time of year, routine is critical. Try to maintain that as much as possible. Parents, don’t stress about the season. If you need to treat this day as any other, then do so. Friends and family, be understanding and don’t take any action as a personal affront. You’re seeing a glimpse into what we live with every day but in overdrive because of the heightened emotional time of Christmas.

Originally written for Care Parenting for publication in the Trinidad Guardian

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