This guest post is authored by my friend Katie Pass, whose five-year-old son has recently been diagnosed with high functioning autism.
“Christmas will be low-key in our house. We will have no tree, no decorations or fancy lights, no Santa visits or busy shops and not even wrapping paper! Even the simplest of these things cause confusion and distress to my autistic son. Our Christmas may be different to yours but we are not unique. Around 1 in 100 children has autism in the UK. They, too, will find the unfamiliarity and change surrounding Christmas bewildering and upsetting”.
This is one family’s description of their Christmas from the National Autistic Society.
My Christmas this year will also be different, as it is the first since my son was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Ben has high functioning autism. He can communicate and generally interact with others, and in fact if you met him on a good day you would think he was perfectly ‘normal’. But he isn’t. Our Christmas won’t be as low key as the one described above but it will take some planning to ensure Ben is comfortable.
We won’t be Christmas shopping as Ben struggles with noise and crowds. I thought I wouldn’t be able to take him to see Father Christmas but I have found somewhere where you can book a timeslot which is perfect for a child who can’t deal with the noise, physical contact and stress that comes from waiting in long queues!
Christmas Day will start when Ben says so – given that he doesn’t sleep that could be anytime from when it starts to get light! There will only be family for the Christmas period. The noise and chaos that comes with Christmas is more than enough for Ben to handle without ‘strangers’ appearing. The day’s events will be staggered and on Ben’s terms. If he can’t handle anything at any point it stops.
We will be having Christmas dinner, but not with Ben. We are staying with my mum who is an amazing cook, and the table will be heaving under dishes full of different flavours and smells – none of which Ben will touch. Certain smells make him physically sick and he has issues with textures of food. For him it is impossible to combine flavours, potatoes in any form are a big ‘no’, as is gravy. No two different foods can touch on his plate. There is a limited possibility of him sitting at the table with us as he just can’t cope in this type of social situation. His lunch will consist of a bowl of pasta maybe in front of the TV, on his own, before the rest of us eat .
Presents are an entirely different issue. Ben understands at Christmas you get presents but is often overwhelmed by the whole production that goes with present giving and receiving. For him opening presents is a bit like taking off a plaster – you rip it off as quickly as possible and discard it. A toy that might be appropriate for a five year old won’t be appropriate for Ben. Certain things just frustrate him; for example Lego is a nightmare as he doesn’t have the fine motor skills to build with it and becomes so frustrated. I am fortunate that my family understand his needs, so they ask for suggestions – there is nothing more frustrating for Ben than receiving a present that is inappropriate to him. He is not being ungrateful he just doesn’t understand what he is supposed to do with it. His world revolves around trains and tractors and trucks, not “Ben 10” or complicated, noisy toys that need to be built. It must be instant access. To a point we remove a lot of the packaging before we carefully wrap it and stick with the smallest amount of Sellotape possible so that he can open it easily.
As much as I enjoy this time of year, and go out of my way to ensure my older daughter gets to enjoy a ‘normal’ Christmas…for me there will be a sense of relief when it is all over, just so that Ben can get back to his normal routine.