Why Autistic children find school difficult in the lead up to Christmas and how we can help to ease the stress!

A black and white photo of a child sat with Father Christmas and his wife. They are next to a Christmas tree.

Its nearly the end of term and things are winding down for Christmas. Work is getting less and fun is getting more. Christmas trees and decorations are going up all over the school and maybe each class has an advent calendar. Teachers start to play Christmas music at tidy up time and the fun begins. There is so much to look forward to! School plays, Christmas dinners, Music concerts, Christmas films, Non Uniform days or Christmas jumper days, Carol concerts, The Christmas fair, Christmas parties and discos, toy day and even visits from Father Christmas!

It sounds amazing right? But what if you put yourself in the shoes of a child who struggles with change and needs routine and structure to make sense of the world.

Imagine for a minute that you work in an office. Normally you get there at ten to nine every morning and go straight to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. You walk down the corridor to your desk. You turn on your computer, look at your list of things to do and start your first call of the day. You take an hour lunch break at 1:30 and then get on with your work.

So today is Tuesday and everything was normal yesterday. You turn up at work and start to walk to the kitchen to get your coffee but straight away you are told you need to get changed into terribly itchy, scratchy and uncomfortable new clothes and go into a different room  where lots of people are going to watch you sing. All you want is to get your coffee and go to your computer to get on with your work. You are forced to sing anyway.

After you sing your song you go to your desk but it’s moved. Your office has changed. Nothing is where it should be, your computer is gone and your boss tells you that today is special. They then put music on that is so loud it hurts your ears and tell you to do a different job to normal. You have no clue whats going on or what is happening next and I bet you wish your day was back to normal!

For children with Autism, school at Christmas time can be unbearable!

Their world is suddenly different. If a tree and decorations suddenly appear in their classroom then even their environment is different. They are unsure of where they are and what they are doing. What is happening next is a constant worry for them because everything they are used to has changed. Their normal routine has gone out of the window and these children that need to know what is happening next are suddenly thrown into chaos.

School plays can be really hard for children who don’t like crowds or being looked at. Children with Sensory Processing Difficulties struggle with fun Christmas music or lights, Christmas dinners or crowded Christmas fairs. Non Uniform days and Christmas jumper days can be a nightmare for some children. I show why in this article.  Even toy day can be anxiety provoking.

What can teachers do to ease the stress on children who find the run up to Christmas difficult whilst keeping the fun for other children?

Whilst the anxiety and stress probably won’t be completely gone, it can be reduced by caring teachers who understand.

Preparation is key. Before putting up a tree or decorations in the classroom warn the children. Show them the tree, explain where it will be. Let them help you put it there and decorate it with you.

Consider making a Christmas timetable for the child’s parents. Put on it all the different activities and when they are happening so they can help prepare the child each day.

Make a visual timetable for the classroom for each day and talk to the children about what is going to happen. Remind them of activities that are coming up next.

Give the child a short social story to take home each day about what will be happening the next day. This can be either in picture or written form depending on their level of understanding.

For big events such as school plays, visits from Father Christmas, parties or Christmas dinners, make sure the child knows exactly what will be happening before the time.

What can parents do to help?

As parents it can be really hard to get our heads round our children not finding the fun times at school very enjoyable but if we sit back and look at the reasons why, it is a lot easier to realise they may need our help dealing with school at this time of year. Here are some practical ideas to help.

Ask the class teacher for a timetable so you know what is happening each day and talk to your child about it frequently to prepare them.

Talk to your child’s teacher about ways they can best help your child cope with Christmas events at school. Could they take ear defenders or do alternative activities, sit with you for the play?

For some children, this time of year can be so bad that children might start to refuse school. Some days are just too different and can be too much for them. If practical it may be worth considering talking to your child’s teacher about taking them home for the worst times. Do they really need to be subjected to a Christmas disco they will hate or a Carol concert that will hurt their ears. If there is no alternative offered at school it might be an idea to pick them up and take them home.

How does your child cope at school in the run up to Christmas and what do you do? Do you have any other ideas? Share them in the comments, they might just help someone else in the next few weeks!

Thankyou for taking the time to read this post.  If you would like to read more then feel free to follow my blog or like my Facebook page which I keep up to date with new posts as they are written. You can also find me on Twitter @KidsOnTour1

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