Working at Limpsfield Grange, a school for girls with autism, is often a surreal experience. A prime example is when I arrived one morning at the start of November to find the boarders dancing around the library to Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. When I asked them why they were doing this, Lizzie told me they were anxious about the Christmas disco (held at the end of term, some weeks away) and were practising dancing to the playlist to help manage their anxiety.
It was a very sensible student-led solution to a problem…I just wasn’t expecting it at 7.30am on a Tuesday morning.
Christmas can be an incredibly difficult time for children and young people with autism. There are lots of changes and your normal routine flies out the window. Unusual food is eaten at odd times; there can be a tree indoors, which can make your environment smell and look really different; decorations can glisten and sparkle in distracting ways; and members of your family come round to see you when you should be in school doing maths. The world becomes an unpredictable place.
Students at my school described Christmas as "A spiky sparkly threat waiting at the end of each year, with a sinister Santa who knows what you’ve done…" in their novel M in the Middle.
Survival tips for the festive season
As for Santa, one of the girls said: "What is it with this old guy who has been watching you all year and can see the thoughts inside your head? Hello! Stranger danger!"
Christmas can understandably make children and young people with autism really anxious, and this can lead to spikes in anxiety-related behaviours, which in turn can make life at school really difficult. So here are some autism-friendly survival tips for the festive season:
- Keep things the same for as long as you can. As tempting as it is to abandon the timetable from the 1 December, try to keep days as normal as possible for as long as possible. If school is different, it will make an autistic child anxious because that means anything and everything could be different, and their world stops making sense.
- If you are going to make changes, let the autistic members of your community know in advance. Be clear about what is going to change, when it is going to change, and for how long it is going to be different. Talk about it and write it down so they have a record to re-refer to.
- Create a calm, quiet, Christmas-free zone in your setting, and let the children with autism know where it is. Christmas can be totally overwhelming, so it’s good to be able to step out of it for a while if you need to.
- Involve them in putting up Christmas decorations. Turning up to a fully-decorated school can be a massive shock for a person with autism, and can make them very anxious.
- Check out the National Autistic Society’s website for some excellent seasonal tips.
Sarah Wild is headteacher at Limpsfield Grange School in Surrey and tweets as @Head_Limpsfield