As Noddy Holder of ‘Slade’ yells at us from about the middle of September every year… “It’s Chriiisssttt-mmmaaaaasssss!!!”
You either started wearing your Christmas jumper in October, had your decorations up in November and have already watched ‘Elf’ 12 times this season, or like many parents of children with additional needs, you feel like King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings movie ‘The Two Towers’ right before the major battle at Helms Deep when he grimly says, “So it begins…”. There’s even a Christmas meme for that!!
However you feel about Christmas, the one unavoidable fact is that for a few crazy weeks everything is different; it’s all change and it is unlike any other time of the year. Everywhere you look there are masses of twinkling lights, stores are full of completely unnecessary Christmas gifts, and it’s suddenly OK to play Slade, Wizzard and Shakin’ Stevens songs once again! We drag trees into our houses, light candles, eat food we never eat at any other time of the year and see people we’ve ignored since last Christmas.
And we’re in nativity season too! A stress fuelled time of rehearsals, costumes, children trying to learn their parts, performances, tears and tantrums (and that’s just the adults!) Most schools get theirs done towards the end of term, while many churches have theirs to do over the weekend leading up to Christmas itself. Tensions are running high, no one can find the stuffed sheep, the star is looking a bit crumpled, and someone has to tell little Jack that the actual shepherds didn’t wear Spiderman dressing gowns…
It can all be a little overwhelming for most of us, but for many children with a wide range of additional needs, a bit like ‘Edgar the Dragon’ in the new John Lewis/Waitrose Christmas advert, it can all just get to be too much. It’s peak season for meltdowns, with children unable to cope with so much change. So, how can we help our own ‘Excitable Edgar’s’, and ourselves, to navigate a safe route through the festive fun? How can we all cope in the chaos of Christmas!
A little bit of preparation can go a very long way… thinking ahead, getting some plans in place, equipping our children and ourselves to be able to cope with all of the changes ahead, can make a really big difference to whether we survive Christmas unscathed or feel ‘burnt out’ by the end of it all. So here’s seven things we can all do (or not do!) to make a difference for ourselves and our own ‘Excitable Edgars’:
1. Visual timetables
Having an advent visual timetable, or a schedule for each day, in the run up to the end of term and then through the holiday period and for the first few days back in January can be really helpful, enabling children to know what’s happening, what to expect, what’s expected of them, equipping them to be able to cope better.
You can find an example here: http://www.take5andchat.org.uk/resources/
Alternatively, you could use a white-board, writing on it just that day’s activities and maybe deciding not to put timings on for each thing so as to avoid anxiety if things (inevitably) run late. Elf on the shelf might also be helpful to reinforce the ‘one day at a time’ approach, bringing something nice to do or doing something helpful and non-threatening, rather than something naughty.
2. Father Christmas
On the subject of non-threatening, it might be difficult for some children to cope with the concept of Father Christmas, especially if he is seen as someone who only rewards ‘good’ children. Whether it’s an in-store ‘Santa’ or the idea that he visits every house on Christmas Eve, it may be best to avoid this aspect of Christmas wherever possible for children who may be very unsettled about it. Just think about the well-known verses below through the imagination of a child who takes things literally; the whole idea could be terrifying!
“He’s making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice,
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake;
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!”
3. Being equipped – shopping survival pack
As additional needs parents, we tend to pack for a three-month arctic expedition when popping to the shops anyway, but making sure we’ve got everything we need if we take our additional needs child out at this time of year is essential. Ear defenders? √ Snack? √ Drink? √ Favourite toy? √ Backup favourite toy? √ Sunglasses? Sunglasses?? Yes, they can help reduce the glare of the lights and help children who struggle with having to make eye contact. √ What does your child’s shopping survival pack look like? There is some more helpful shopping survival information for you here: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/family-life/everyday-life/shopping-strategies.aspx
4. Pick your times
If you have to take your child to the shops with you, and you’ve got your shopping survival pack with you, carefully choose when you actually go to the shops… Early in the day or in the evening if you can, avoiding weekends and days like Boxing Day when the sales start. Some stores are holding special ‘Autism Hours’ which offer quieter shopping sessions, sometimes with reduced lighting and also with additional support if needed; it’s worth checking with your local shopping centre to see if they are running these. I know there is an argument that every hour should be ‘Autism Hour’ and all shops should be fully accessible and inclusive, and I long for that day too, but in the meantime, pick your battles.
5. Keeping it calm
Many parents try to reduce the amount of change that their children experience over the Christmas period. This might include putting up just a few tasteful decorations rather than making our houses visible from space, for example!
It might also include having just a few special, carefully chosen, gifts for them to open, spread out over a few days so that they can focus on each one, rather than the Argos delivery driver needing a fork-lift truck to deliver to us.
For many of our ‘Edgar’s’, home is their ‘safe space’, a place where they can be themselves and not be anxious about what might happen. If this safe space is suddenly invaded by 30 friends and relatives, most of whom they won’t have seen since last year, all slightly tipsy and loud from a trip to the pub, it is likely to get overwhelming very fast. Limiting visitors to a small number of well-known family and friends, with recovery or ‘recharge’ days between each visit, can help. These relaxed, chilled out recovery days are vital for our ‘Edgar’s’ to re-charge and be able to cope better with the next set of visitors (see below).
Food can be very important for our ‘Edgar’s’ too; they often have a limited range of foods that they will eat and so Christmas with all of the different food, excessive choice and over indulgence can be hard. Make sure that they can still choose their favourites, even on Christmas Day, the security of familiar flavours can really make a difference!
6. Recharge days
During the Christmas period it can be easy to pack our diaries with activities, visits to friends and family, feasts and fun, but we all need some recharge times too, especially children with additional needs. Schedule in some quieter days, a long lie in if that works for you, chillaxing in front of the TV, or maybe a gentle stroll in the countryside or along the coast.Maybe even a time to reflect on what Christmas is supposed to be about, a celebration of the birth of Jesus bringing hope and joy to the world. As the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” Luke 2:14
You know what works for you, but you might need to block those days out in your diary now, so they don’t get used for a visit to the in-laws instead!
7. Get support and get time out
A long school holiday can be really hard work for those of us that are caring 24/7 for a child or children with additional needs. Even our recharge days will involve lots of care and support for our children, and we need to make sure we don’t completely neglect ourselves during this time. It’s peak season for illnesses of various kinds, and exhaustion and neglect can weaken us and make us more susceptible to bugs.
It can be a big ask, but is there someone who could look after your tribe for a few hours while you look after yourself? Maybe go and get pampered, or go to the cinema or out for a quiet meal with your partner or a friend? It’s not wrong to look after yourself a little, and maybe you can do a trade where you repay childminding one day with you looking after their children another day?
Hopefully these seven tips will get you started on your own plan to help you to survive the Christmas chaos with your own ‘Edgar’s’… Each of us is different, so our plans will reflect our differences, but if we put some thought and preparation into this now we might just survive and get to the other end in one piece without our Christmas going up in smoke, ‘Excitable Edgar’ style!!
26th November 2019
Why Children With Additional Needs Are Like Edgar The Dragon
Want to watch the John Lewis/Waitrose Christmas 2019 video again? Oh, go on then: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9D-uvKih_k
Image rights and rights to ‘Excitable Edgar’ © 2019 John Lewis and Partners