While the festive period may be a time to celebrate and have fun, it can also bring new challenges for families of children with special educational needs (SEN). The change in routines, busier streets, bright lights and loud noises can make this time feel stressful and overwhelming for children with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
As the countdown to Christmas begins, the ongoing Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic means that many of us will have a different experience this year. In this post, we talk to Jo, the parent of 14-year old Liam, who has autism and ADHD, and currently attends one of our specialist schools.
Jo discusses below the steps she is taking to support her child and prepare him for Christmas during the pandemic. We also ask Jo what advice she would give to other families and carers in a similar situation, as we get ready for the festive season.
1. Communicate with your child and manage their expectations
Talk to your child about Christmas as early on as you can, explain the changes that this will bring and what they can expect. Covid-19 may mean that usual Christmas activities such as visits to loved ones or participation in Christmas events are no longer taking place. It is important to speak to your child about this, so you can help to manage their expectations of the time ahead. Talk to them about what is going on in the world, how it is likely to affect Christmas and ensure that you allow plenty of time for any questions.
While they are unable to celebrate with those they might normally, Jo’s family are concentrating on what they can do over the holiday period: “Not being able to meet up with family and people important to us is a bit disappointing and obviously things will look very different this year. We explained this to Liam and we will support him, and focus on what we can do together and keep our bubble safe.”
2. Put together a timetable
Using a visual timetable to show what will be happening over the festive period can help to minimise your child’s anxiety by making Christmas more predictable. It can also help to prepare your child for specific activities that may be happening. For example, if you are planning a video call with family members, you can use a photo of your relatives to give your child an idea of what to expect.
You may also want to put together a schedule for Christmas Day itself. With all that is going on, Jo recommends building in enough time for activities that your child will find calming and relaxing: “Liam joins in when he can and when he doesn’t, he has ‘Liam time’ to do what he needs to be calm and happy. Parents will be aware of what are high stimulating activities for their child, so support them through these and then have time for more calm and comforting activities”.
Keeping to a daily routine provides structure,and can help a child feel more secure as they know what lies ahead. As the Christmas holidays begin, Jo ensures that the family “keep things familiar for Liam, so every day isn’t that different.”
3. Plan activities you can do together
It is important to have realistic expectations for Christmas and to understand that each child engages with it in their own way. Jo and her family have adapted to this, as she explains: “Now Liam has matured more, he understands what Christmas is about, but doesn’t particularly feel anything about the festivities. We reduce unrealistic expectations and function like it’s a normal day.”
Plan activities that you enjoy doing together, even if these are not the traditional Christmas ones. Jo is looking forward to having fun and enjoying the additional time together as a family: “We have decided to just enjoy it as much as we can and make the most of time together.”
4. Look after your own wellbeing
There is a lot going on over Christmas and given the additional challenges that many families have been experiencing this year, it is important to avoid putting too much pressure on yourself. Liam’s health issues have meant that Jo has had to support him to learn at home for long periods, while continuing to work full-time herself.
As we look forward to the festive season, she advises parents and carers to take care of their own mental health: “Families must make sure they remember their own health and wellbeing, and look after themselves. Burning out is no good for anyone.”
She encourages parents and carers to connect with others in similar situations and to share their experiences: “I think linking to other parents can be beneficial, we are all sharing similar experiences. There’s nothing more reassuring than knowing you are not alone. That you can reach out and know someone understands how it is.”
It is important to remember that every family’s experience of Christmas is different and not to be too critical of ourselves when it comes to the celebrations. Jo urges parents to acknowledge how difficult this year may have been for them and to: “reduce the pressure on yourself, if your child is happy and healthy this Christmas, then you have achieved a lot.”
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Aspris Children’s Services provide a network of specialist schools, colleges and residential services across the UK for children and young people with a range of needs. Our aim is to make a real and lasting difference, and help to change the lives of every child and young person that we support.