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6 Ways to Have a Successful Christmas Morning with Your Children - Autistic or Not


I will spare you a long intro. I think we can all agree that October through the last day of December are non-stop thrill rides of chaos and fun and stress, especially if you have school aged kids!


It starts with Halloween. Spooky decorations, costumes, candy, pumpkin patch trips, class parties, harvest festivals. Just when you get adjusted to the cooler weather, it's time to pack up Halloween and trade it for the tote labeled 'Thanksgiving'. In my home, that means little plaques that say 'Blessed' and 'Thankful', a deep orange table cloth and a new menu with hearty, Thanksgiving-ish foods. Then it's the class feast, 4 different family gatherings, and seasonal illness.

The day after Thanksgiving is my favorite day. It's predictable and calm. We go to Lowes and pick out our Christmas Tree. My husband brings in all of our boxes filled with Christmas decorations and when the kids are asleep, it's my time to shine. I turn on Christmas music and get to work. The next morning, the kids wake up to yet another drastic change to their environment- Christmas Time- represented with bright lights, stockings, snow globes and their favorite part, Elves! Then it's game on. Shopping, baking, parties, gift wrapping, music, school concerts, church programs, traffic and all the things that bombard our souls during the holidays.


And we can't forget my husbands birthday, 2 days before Christmas.


I think we can agree that as adults, this whole season can feel like a ticking time bomb of stress and a never ending to-do list. I must mention, there are traditions, activities and people that bring me so much joy during the holidays. I have things that I look forward to all year long, and even though it may be a lot of work for me, I wouldn't trade them for anything. But it's a very busy and overwhelming time, for better or worse.


Now take everything you feel and experience during the holidays, the change in lighting, the smells of new food, tastes, music, tv specials, places you visit, people you encounter... and view them through the eyes of your children. Even for children who are not on the spectrum, who do not have issues processing their environment, it's a lot to take in. I try to put myself in my daughters shoes. She is 3 (going on 21) and seems to be handling the holidays a little better than I would expect from a 3 year old. Besides the occasional tantrum, trying to peek at toys, sugar highs or mooning her entire pre-school class (ya... that happened) she is doing ok.


Now try your best to enter my sons world.


He is on the autism spectrum and experiences the world in a very different way than his sister. On a normal day, he is easily overwhelmed. We have created and practiced a routine that works for him. I have learned to maneuver his triggers so we can avoid meltdowns. I have learned that he hates loud and abrupt noises. I have learned that when he feels the slightest bit of stress that he vocal stems (repetitive noises or words). I have learned that I can't always bribe or discipline for good behavior, sometimes we just have to sit with the bad moment and reassure him that he is going to be ok. We have to prepare in advance for any and every scenario before we leave the house.


Then enter the entire month of December. The lights are brighter for him.. and now they are colorful, and they blink in random patterns, and they are everywhere. There is a tree in our living room with a star on the top, colorful garland, ornaments, and our house smells like pine. His classroom is decorated and there are new activities, new songs being sung and talk of elves and presents in every conversation. His whole world is drastically different, and will soon be different again once Christmas has ended.

Last night we went to see the drive thru Christmas light show and was reminded of how real the struggle is for him to process all of this sensory input. I was driving, my husband was in the passenger seat, my daughter was standing in the back seat (child locks on), and my son was sitting on my lap. You turn on your radio to the local sponsor station and listen to a perfectly coordinated song and light show. It's become my favorite Christmas tradition. My daughter had both hands on the window. She was dancing and laughing and pointing out all of her favorite lights. She saw Olaf, and singing snowmen, angles, stars, light tunnels, giant Christmas trees. She was in love with the show and letting us all know!


My sons experience was much different. He was listening to the same songs. He was watching the same light shows. He was in the same car. The reminder came when I noticed him squeezing my arm a little tighter as the songs would get louder. I had my arm wrapped around him and across his chest. I started paying attention to the songs and I started to notice the reactions the lights would make to the song. If the song had a quiet and peaceful sound, the lights would display a calm, peaceful, predictable pattern. If the song had a loud and excited moment, the lights would explode and change colors and race through the display. Cayden wasn't just trying to spot his favorite character or sing along with the songs. He was taking in every color change, every sound, every security guard along the route, every arrow guiding the cars, every rise in fall of the theatric temperament of the moment. I would give anything to experience the light show through my sons eyes.

For spectrum parents, this is a hard balance. Something I struggle with every day. How do you provide a magical Christmas experience for the bouncing baby girl in the back seat who is singing her heart out and the autistic, stoic boy in the front seat who is analyzing every flickering bulb. Bad news- it doesn't stop because it's Christmas. It gets harder. But good news- I have compiled a small list of ways to set your children up for a fun and meltdown free Christmas morning!


1. SET THEIR EXPECTATIONS


The best way to prepare your children for opening gifts, visiting relatives or saying good bye to the elves is to set clear expectation. I am not talking about what you expect from them. I am talking about what they can expect from the moment. Sit them down and explain the process step by step. Kids are smart, and setting their expectations can make them feel informed and prepared.


It can go something like this- "Okay kiddos, do you know what tomorrow is? That's right it's Christmas! Who is excited?? Me too! I need to let you know how tomorrow morning is going to go. When you wake up, come get Mommy! We will come to the living room and have hot cocoa and wait for Dad to wake up. First, we will make our Candy Cane Danish together. Once it has baked in the oven, we will let it cool and put icing on top. We will all have our breakfast treat together and then it's time for presents!! Who is excited for presents?? Me too! When Mommy is ready we will go sit around the Christmas tree. We will sort our presents. Then we will each take a turn opening one gift at a time. Once that gift is open, even if it is a really fun toy, we will leave it in the box until all of our gifts are open. After everyone has opened all of their gifts, we can start to play!! Any questions?"


Providing them a road map before the journey will help them follow along instead of rolling with the chaos.


2. ERASE YOUR EXPECTATIONS


Yep. For those who need a plan, a routine, peace... You are my people. However, when it comes to moments that can overwhelm your kids, it's your job to set aside your plans and your expectations for the moment and show up for your kids in the ways that best meet their needs. I learned this when my son was 3. He had about 10 presents to unwrap. He opened present 4 and started screaming and crying. He was not having it. I ended up putting him down for a nap and we tried again after naptime. This was a few months before he was diagnosed with autism but we had been working with therapists and trying to find out what was going on.


For me, every Christmas was waking up, opening up all my presents and then getting to work assembling and playing all day long! No one told me that I would have an autistic kid. No one warned me about sensory overload. So it was no surprise that my husband and I did all the wrong things our first few Christmas times.


I wish someone would have told me these things, so I am going to tell you. It's ok to open a present and play with it and open another one later. It's ok to open half of your gifts and then open the rest of them after nap time. It's ok to open a few gifts the night before or one a day the week of Christmas. It's ok to make a perfect plan and then change your plan several times while you navigate the needs of your kids. You are all going to be ok.

3. ASK QUESTIONS


Do you notice your kids starting to act with aggression or feeling overwhelmed? When it starts to happen it's time to eliminate distractions and ask the right questions.


"Do you need to take a break? We can go read a book together in your room if you would like." "Would you like me to turn the music down? (or off)" "Do you want the Christmas tree lights on or off?" "Do you need a snack?" "Do you want to go for a walk?"


Sometimes kids don't know what they want or know what they need. It's our job to find out what that is. Ask and then set them up for success.


4. ROLL PLAY SCENARIOS


When my son is about to experience a new event, we always have better success when we roll play. For example, he is fixated on dinosaurs. When he opened a present that wasn't a dinosaur he would have an outburst. This wasn't because he was ungrateful, spoiled or bratty. It's because he is an autistic boy with a fixation on dinosaurs. My daughter on the other hand loves Frozen and wants everything to have Elsa and Anna on it. She is also 3 and when she unwrapped a present that wasn't correctly themed, she would instantly want to open another gift in hopes of seeing the frozen logo. Again, not ungrateful, just 3.


Roll playing looks like this. Wrap simple household items and unwrap them together. Practice showing appreciation and gratefulness. Practice giving a gift and getting a gift. Not to teach them to be little phony false-gratitude robots, but to teach them how to open a gift, how to be patient, how to stop in the moment and truly embrace what they have just received. Wrap a pair of their socks. Wrap a favorite non-preferred toy. Their favorite dinner plate. Hair bow. Hat. Whatever silly thing that can be used to practice with. Also wrap their preferred toys and let them be truly excited. Practicing this will boost their confidence and they will be a little more graceful when receiving a gift.


5. EXPLAIN TRANSITIONS AND SET A TIMER


Excitement and curiosity are healthy. We want our kids to experience all of the good things that holidays bring, but when their routine is wrecked, sleep schedules interrupted and senses overwhelmed, they may face a hard time during transitions.


This one is simple. Before moving on to the next activity or if a plan changes, explain it to your kids. My kids are terrible with transitions. Explaining what is happening next and why is very helpful!


It goes like this. "Hey guys, we are going to open one present tonight to celebrate Christmas Eve and then after we clean up our mess we are going to play for 30 minutes." "Okay, we are done playing, after we clean up we are going to take a bath and get in our cozy pajamas." "Let's wash your hair and after we dry off we are going to go watch a Christmas movie in the living room." "The movie is almost over. After this we are going to bed to read 1 book and go to sleep so Santa can come to our house!"


If a plan changes it sounds like this. "Hey party people, I know Mommy said we were going to build the gingerbread house before naptime but we ran out of time. Let's take a quick nap and when we wake up we will build a gingerbread house while we eat our snack."


Keep it simple, set a timer and give time limits, offer explanations and help them navigate disappointment.

6. CREATE PEACE


I've said it before and I will say it again, Peace has to be created and protected. Sometimes you even have to fight for it. With kids in the mix, this is especially true. With kids on the spectrum, this is mandatory.


In my house, creating peace looks like movie night. We turn the lights way down, pick a movie they have seen before and still show interest in, snuggle under blankets, pop popcorn, add some chocolate candy and enjoy the moment. Once the movie starts, no one leaves the couch. It's created and it's protected.


Christmas morning is chaotic enough. It's your job to plan ahead. I am not talking about a to-do list. I'm talking about preparing your heart for what is ahead. There may be bad attitudes at times. There may be tears. There may be paper cuts and spills and someone might need a nap. Choose peace in the chaos. Decide ahead of time that nothing can sway your attitude from being anything than the parent you want to be. Do you want Christmas morning to be magical? Cool. You have to choose to keep your cool when all your plans melt away. Protecting your peace means a more peaceful experience for your chaotic kids. They will not always remember how they reacted to something, but they will almost always remember how you reacted. Protect yourself. Give your kids grace. And also, give yourself grace.


Let the Christmas season remind you that you are doing a great job. Parenting is no joke and every day presents an opportunity to learn something new about these fiercely independent little creatures we have created. Lean into their needs and take care of yourself as well. You're doing great!


From my family to yours, Merry Christmas!


For more autism resources please visit: BrittanyParra.com


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