Some kids hate christmas. Or rather, they get very uncomfortable when Christmas arrives at school. For those with autism, or other SEND, it can be a confusing time of quick changes in routine and sensory overload. So what can we do to make sure the Yuletide period is something everyone can enjoy?
The last few weeks of the autumn term tend to see routines and timetables experience big – often last-minute – changes: non-uniform day, concerts, special performances. For some students, this will cause a lot of stress. It is invaluable to talk through any potential changes with any young person likely to be affected by disruption to the norm. Talk about how rules will sometimes need to be bent in life and that all of us need a degree of flexibility in our thinking. Some students at our school are perturbed by the concept of Christmas jumper day, because it is a change and it does not follow the school rules. The use of Social Stories can be used to help break down some of these potential fears.
Not everyone will be aware of the negative impact that the festivities of Christmas can have on some students. Ensure that all staff know that sensory overload can cause stress, impacting individuals’ levels of resilience and, therefore, their behaviour. Lots of glitter, loud music, face paints, sweets and changes to the timetable can sometimes prove to be too much for some students. This does not mean that schools have to ban these things; rather, staff just need to be aware that some students may find it hard to cope, and to acknowledge this rather than being quick to dismiss it as something trivial.
Things may become overwhelming at times for some individuals and they may benefit from some time out. Ensure that they have a person or a room they can go to in order to "decompress". Ideally, this should be a person they know well and/or a safe room that hasn’t been overly decorated.
Alternative options for SEND pupils
While it is essential that young people are encouraged to be flexible in their thinking and to be open-minded to changes, it is always useful to have a contingency plan for those who are not quite ready to do this. For example, some students may not feel able to participate in a form party or school disco. Rather than leaving them to feel excluded by sitting out, provide alternative treats. For example, some of our students like to play card and board games, others enjoy watching films or doing mindful colouring-in.
Some young people may really want to participate in a whole-school activity, such as a special assembly, but may also feel anxious about doing so. Speak to the young person about what is worrying them and see if any compromises can be made – for example, sitting by the door in assembly, so they can make a swift exit if necessary. Consider pairing them with a trusted peer or ensure that an adult whom they get on well with is on hand to support them if required.
Some students may want to make a contribution to the community festive spirit in a different, more low-key fashion. Play to the strengths of individuals. For example, they may enjoy getting involved in activities such as: doing the lighting for a school concert, making decorations or festive food, creating a festive display or writing a quiz. If a young person is able to demonstrate that they can cope with a situation that they previously couldn’t, ensure that this is recognised, and they are praised.
It may appear on the surface that some young people do not wish to be involved with Christmas activities. However, it could just be that they do not understand how they can fit in with the celebrations. The festive season should be one of inclusivity. By making a few small changes, this can be easily achievable in all schools.
Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk