The Christmas before last we were in no way prepared for how the festivities were going to affect Franklin. He had been very young on previous Christmases. It was the first year, him being almost 3, that we thought he was going to really love Christmas.
How wrong we were. He spent most of the festive period hid inside a box. I’d delighted in buying a colour-in santa’s grotto, envisioning endless magical hours watching the children colour it in, smiling together under twinkling lights, Bing Crosby softly playing in the background. Oh how very wrong we were. Tabitha spent all of 10 minutes colouring it in, choosing instead to delegate and instruct every grandparent who visited which section to colour in for her and when. Franklin found solace hiding inside it.
When he wasn’t in the box he was trying to pull any reachable decoration down and then hide it away, while avoiding walking anywhere within 5 feet of the tree. He was noticeably unsettled and overwhelmed for the whole Yuletide period and unfortunately this resulted in many tears and much self-regulation. Even wearing his favoured onesies didn’t make him smile!
Christmas day was equally as disastrous. Franklin cried when we tried to give him presents. He didn’t like opening the presents and wasn’t overly keen on what was inside when we opened them for him, not liking many toys generally. Family arrived and off he went, back in his box, door firmly shut behind him.
Christmas limped to an end and we began the arduous task of taking the decorations down and dismantling the tree. We watched in utter dismay as Franklin danced and jumped around the house in sheer delight. He hadn’t looked anywhere near this happy in weeks! Christmas had been far too much for him and he’d struggled through it.
Time for change
A year on and Christmas began in late October. From now on I was going to phase it in. Knowing now how overwhelming and ultimately distressing the impact of Christmas and the amount of change that comes with it can be for Franklin, I wanted to eliminate any repeats of the previous year.
Having two children, one neurotypical and one autistic, we cannot just cancel Christmas. Nor would I want to, I love it! We just needed to do things differently and find a balance to ensure both kids get the enjoyment out of it they deserve.
The new plan went like this:
- We put one decoration up each week from late October. This gave Franklin time to adjust to each one being in his home, in his environment, before introducing the next one a week later.
- Every time we added a new decoration to the house, we did it with Franklin in the room so he could watch the process. (The year prior we had put the decorations up while the children were in bed, as a surprise for the next morning… we didn’t get quite the response we were hoping for).
- The tree went up mid November but we didn’t decorate it until early December. When we did, we didn’t go overboard. We limited the amount of baubles and let Tabitha choose every bauble that adorned our tree, all of her favourites. It was a sight for sore eyes!
- We made sure Santa didn’t leave a pile of presents out for Franklin on Christmas morning. We stored them safely out of sight.
- Franklin’s main Christmas present was a new balance bike. We placed just this one gift, unwrapped, in the corner of the lounge on Christmas morning and allowed him, in his own time, to go and play on it, or not if he wasn’t interested.
- On Christmas day instead of having a full house, we staggered visits from family members throughout the day.
- Just the four of us had our Christmas dinner together. Franklin had his favourite food, 4 burnt Yorkshire puddings.
- Every couple of days or so after Christmas Day we placed one of Franklin’s new toys out for him and waited until he was ready to explore it. (Tabitha took great pleasure in unwrapping each one – it took well over a month to open all of his Christmas presents!)
Franklin was visibly happier over the entire Christmas period. He smiled, he laughed and he wasn’t terrified of the tree (and given how unsightly it was I wouldn’t have blamed him this year!). He ventured close enough to join Tabitha in stealing chocolate decorations off it on multiple occasions. I had again this year, as backup, bought a santa’s grotto and was ecstatic that Franklin barely even noticed it – that was by far the best Christmas present I could have ever wished for!