The festive season is bright and colourful, filled with Christmas tunes, social events with plenty of people, and lots of things to do. For lots of us, it’s a fun time of the year - but for those who are neurodiverse, the loud sounds and bright lights of Christmas can get overwhelming and stressful.
It is estimated that up to 15% of the UK population, or one in seven Britons, are neurodiverse, which means their brain functions differently from others and the way they think about and see the world varies.
Some of the most common types of neurodiversity include autism or autism spectrum conditions, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscaluclia.
Many types of neurodiversity begin in childhood, which means there is a large population of children who may need support during the festive season.
According to children’s charity Little Lives, there are an estimated one in 100 children in the UK diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Meanwhile, ADHD UK estimates there are around 694,000 children with ADHD, and research shows that among children aged five to 15 years old, 3.62% of boys and 0.85% of girls had the condition.
They may find the holiday season challenging and overstimulating, says Dr Jenna Vyas-Lee, clinical psychologist and co-founder of mental healthcare clinic Kove. She adds that Christmas can “really exacerbate lots of difficulties they’re already facing”.
“This includes sensory overload - lots of colour, noise and music, the shops being busier and an overloaded calendar with increased socialising and social communication,” she explains. “The school schedule is also totally different around Christmas - there’s lots of diversions from the everyday structure that lots of school children thrive off, and this can also impact feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.”
These are Dr Vyas-Lee’s tips and advice on how to navigate the festive season with neurodiverse children and support them so they can thrive.
Accept that Christmas will be different
Parents may have an idealistic view of what their perfect Christmas will look like with their kids, Dr Vyas-Lee says - but this likely will not align with reality, particularly if you have neurodiverse children.
“Most prospective parents have the idea that they wake up on Christmas morning and surrounding days will be idyllic with grateful children dressed beautifully, eating well, opening beautifully wrapped presents,” she says.
“The reality for most parents is that there are of course moments like this, but a lot of the time the Christmas holidays are busy and stressful — there are highs and lows just like any other time of year.”
In order to accept that Christmas might not be the soft-lit, glowy time of year with your kids that you thought it would be, parents should “take a moment to grieve for the Christmas they thought they would have before they have children”, the psychologist says, couching that it may “sound a bit dramatic”.
But this will help you be more realistic about what will actually work with your family, whether or not you have neurodiversity in it. Understanding that what is achievable might be different to what works for other members of your wider family, friends or school network can give you a sense of reassurance.
Steps you can take
To make Christmas a less stressful and more enjoyable experience for everyone, there are a couple of things you can do in advance.
“Make sure you prep children for festivities,” she says. “Create a visual timetable that shows children where and when different things are happening; when wider family might be visiting, when those people will be leaving.
“Give them a day-to-day schedule that they can look at and count down the bigger moments.”
Figure out how to help them adapt
“There are also times when you will want to socialise or take your child somewhere that might be uncomfortable for them, so work out together a way of managing these difficult environments.”
For example, you can get noise-cancelling headphones for your child to wear in a busy shopping centre, which helps block out loud music and the sound of crowds and gives them a sense of security.
Read more about neurodiversity:
Christine McGuinness fans 'in tears' over 'powerful' autism documentary (Yahoo Celebrity UK, 2-min read)
Katie Price shares how she supports other parents of children with autism (Yahoo Celebrity UK, 3-min read)
Studies exploring ADHD could lead to earlier diagnosis (PA Media, 2-min read)