Sunday, 20 December 2015

Christmas for an Autistic Mum

Some days I think how lucky we are that the three of us are autistic, in our family.
It means Christmas is pretty stress-free.  At least on the day itself.

For me, as an autistic mum, Christmas has always had more challenges than I could name.  

1) Making sure family members with 'executive function' issues are well organised.  Helping them plan ahead. Executive function is where planning how to do a task goes wrong.  Timings, actions, sequences.  It needs a lot of structure and rules. A top tip for those who struggle with understanding time has been to buy really easy-to-read clocks and watches, and help people work out 15 minute chunks of time.  Tasks that seemed hugely daunting are now 'just one chunk' or 'only two chunks'.

2) Trying to guess what people need for Christmas.  Apparently not everyone appreciates an Ordnance Survey map.  This was a surprise to me, as a child. 
As an adult, I've put maximum thought into noticing what people wear.  What colours they prefer. What things they have in their homes.  Anything that is a hint or tip.   And sometimes I just ask them what they'd like.  OK, it's not a surprise that way.  But me buying the wrong thing won't make their Christmas better.  Autistic people are not keen on surprises (generalising throughout).  So understanding that others really like not having a clue what's happening...well, that's a mystery.  But if that's what makes them happy, that's good.

3) Coping with the Christmas disruption.  Everything changes.  There's flashing lights on houses and on Christmas trees (sensory eek for those of us with the photosensitive sort).  There's changes of routine.  There's bright colours everywhere (which I love, thankfully).  There's huge social expectations of extra greetings of Just The Right Sort.  For creatures of habit and rules, this is all very scary.  We try to minimise time spent near dreadful 'energy saver' compact fluorescent bulbs in many houses now, as well as ones in shops.  Ear plugs/defenders, and blue-light-reducing sunglasses can help.  Good timetables also help.

4) Keeping everyone's brains at 'less than superheat' level.  Remember, autism is not a behavioural condition or a mental health condition.  It's a different brain design.  The wiring inside senses too much info from the world around us, and (from what we see on scans now) literally overheats, if we're not careful.  That's why we suddenly 'switch off', or leave, or do something baffling for a short time - pain/electric stuff going on inside our brains.  So, if there's a social event, I need to think how much time to allocate before and afterwards to brain cooling, so we can go see our lovely friends. Y'see, we do love our friends and family, very much.  Seeing them is a joy.  We're just not built to do it for long, using their forms of communication.  Eye contact, body language, extreme chatter in noisy places with music playing and everyone wearing perfumes and aftershaves...yikes.    I need to work out all the emergency plans in case the calculations for brain-overheat-levels are a bit wrong.  [It's not an exact science. If one of the family is feeling ill, they can cope with less.  If something that's a sudden sensory overload happens, that adds to brain-heat.  If there's a social eek, that's brain-heat as well]

5) Making time to relax and enjoy things.  That's so hard, sometimes.  It helps me to be able to use technology.  It may look antisocial, but it's my coping strategy.  The Christmas dinner can be very stressful for some.  We make it predictable, and it's OK for people to leave the table for a while if they are overloaded with sensory or social stuff.

6) Remembering to explain that I'm really not being rude if I have to say no to an event.  Or leave early.  Or go elsewhere for a while during it.  Or if I don't recognise someone I know (faceblindess is not handy...).  Or fail to make the Right Eye Contact.  (Honestly, good people, would you ask a Blind friend to make the right eye contact?  It's painful for us to do it, because our brains wire it into the wrong bit of the brain.  It's not us being rude).  

7) Remembering to take autism alert card with me.  Just in case I need it.

8) Home shopping.  Hurrah!!  Not a luxury for people like me who cannot access a supermarket without being in pain and exhaustion from the sensory hell.  Hurrah for supermarkets now offering 'autism friendly' shopping times.  Others shops could do the same.

9)  Rehearsing what to say if someone gives me something baffling.  Most of my friends are brilliant at buying things I love.  Occasionally, someone newer to me will give me something that is accidentally-scary.  I must remember not to be scared...not to show that I'm scared...and to say the right thanks.   Oh, and also say something nice about the person and what they are wearing, if they have dressed up for an occasion. I think it, but sometimes forget to say it.  Communication disability/difference, not 'couldn't care less'. Safe subjects to admire are important.  Remember to teach young people to compliment the colour of a nice scarf or a piece of jewellery, or similar.  And to avoid compliments about more personal areas of the body.

10) Most important, and through all of the above, remembering that - for me - this is about celebrating the birth of Jesus.  My faith is so important to me.  It's why I talk about it a lot.  If others have no faith, or a different faith, that's fine.  I'm not a 'You must believe in Jesus or else!' sort of person.   But's about love.  And knowing that we are loved, just as we are, by God and Jesus means more than I can rightly say.

Very good to be working with so many churches and other faith groups across the world, explaining autistic worship and prayer.  Being able to celebrate this day is as important for autistic Christians as any other Christian.  And, we are as likely to be Christian as anyone else.  Jesus had an autistic friend, Nicodemus.  That is something absolutely brilliant.  He was right there, alongside Jesus, chatting to him, learning about our faith.  Looking for autism info your church?  Search online for the words Welcoming autism church.  Those should take you to the welcoming guidelines for churches.

Whatever your own faith, or indeed if you are celebrating any other event, these sorts of tips above can be a starting point.  Each family, and each person, will have their own best way of celebrating.  Whether it is quietly or noisily, whether in small groups or big gatherings.

I wish you all a wonderful celebration, whatever yours might be.