Create a neurodivergent-friendly Christmas environment

11 December 2023

Christmas is often seen as a time of joy, laughter and family gatherings. However, for families with neurodivergent children, it can also bring about feelings of stress and anxiety. 

In this blog, we will explore some strategies and tips on how to make Christmas easier for neurodivergent children. These are not only helpful for parents, but also for teachers, friends, and family members who may interact with a neurodivergent child during the holiday season.

Sensory-friendly Decorations

For children with sensory sensitivities, Christmas decorations could sometimes be overwhelming. Here are some suggestions to make them more comfortable:

  1. Minimise flashing lights: Flashing Christmas lights can be too stimulating for some neurodivergent children. Opt for static lights or dimmed lighting instead, which can be calming and less overwhelming. You may also consider using fewer lights or choosing lights with warmer tones.
  2. Choose soft materials: Instead of tinsel, which can be prickly, consider using soft fabric ribbons or felt garlands for decorations. These are not only visually appealing but are also tactilely soothing for children who seek touch.
  3. Avoid strong scents: Scented candles or air fresheners with a Christmas theme may seem enticing, but strong smells can cause discomfort to children with sensory issues. Natural smells, such as gentle scents from a real Christmas tree or baking cookies, can be a better option.
  4. Involve your child in decorating: Involving your child in the decorating process can make them feel comfortable and give them a sense of control over the environment. Allow them to choose the decorations they like and decide where they should go.

Remember, the key is to create an environment that is festive yet comfortable for your child. By considering their sensory needs when decorating, you can help make Christmas a more enjoyable experience for them.

Managing Holiday Events

Holiday events, with their large crowds, loud noises, and unfamiliar environments, can often be stressful for neurodivergent children. Here are a few tips to make these situations more manageable:

  1. Plan Ahead: Prepare your child for what to expect during the event. If possible, visit the venue beforehand or show them pictures of the place and the people they'll meet. Discuss the schedule and the activities that'll take place.
  2. Bring Familiar Items: Carrying a favourite toy, book, or blanket can provide a comforting sense of familiarity amidst the unfamiliar. It could serve as a necessary calming tool if the environment becomes overwhelming.
  3. Designate a Quiet Zone: If you are hosting the event, ensure there is a designated quiet area where your child can retreat to if they need to decompress. If you are attending an event, check with the host if such an area could be arranged.
  4. Respect their Comfort Zone: Encourage participation but also respect their comfort zone. If they are uncomfortable participating in an activity, don't force them. Their comfort and enjoyment are more important than sticking rigidly to traditions.
  5. Keep Routines: Try to maintain your child's regular sleeping and eating routines as much as possible to avoid additional stress.

With these measures in place, holiday events can become more enjoyable and less stressful for your child. Always remember, every child is unique, so be patient, flexible, and open to making adjustments based on your child's needs.

Inclusive Activities for Neurodivergent Children

Engaging neurodivergent children in inclusive activities can make them feel valued and part of the celebration. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Craft Sessions: Encourage your child's creativity with a Christmas craft session. This could include making decorations for the tree, creating handmade Christmas cards, or building a snowman out of cotton. Ensure the activities align with their interests and comfort level.
  2. Story Time: Gather around the fire or under the Christmas tree for a festive story session. Choose books with inclusive characters to create a sense of belonging and acceptance.
  3. Musical Moments: Singing Christmas carols or playing Christmas music softly in the background can be a gentle, enjoyable way to engage your child. Remember to keep the volume at a comfortable level.
  4. Baking Together: Baking Christmas cookies or gingerbread men can be a sensory-rich and fun-filled activity. Children can help with mixing ingredients and decorating the baked goods, improving their motor skills.
  5. Interactive Games: Organise games that cater to different abilities, such as Christmas-themed puzzles, treasure hunts, or sensory bins filled with ornaments of different shapes and textures.

These activities can be adjusted to suit the needs and preferences of your child. Remember, the goal is to ensure they feel included and enjoy the holiday season.

Managing Sensory Overload During Christmas

The Christmas season, with its bright lights, loud music, and heightened activity, can often lead to sensory overload for neurodivergent children. Here are some strategies to manage this:

  1. Create a Quiet Space: Designate a peaceful area in your home where your child can retreat to when the excitement becomes overwhelming. This could be a cosy corner with soft lighting, comforting textures, and their favourite items.
  2. Use Noise-Cancelling Headphones: If your child is sensitive to noise, consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. These can help reduce the impact of overwhelming sounds, such as loud music or chatter.
  3. Introduce Changes Gradually: If you plan to decorate your home, introduce the new items gradually. This can help your child adjust to the changes in their environment at their own pace.
  4. Plan Ahead: Try to stick to your child's regular routine as much as possible to avoid unnecessary stress. Also, inform your child about the planned activities in advance. This can help prepare them for what's coming next.
  5. Encourage Use of a Comfort Item: If your child has a favourite toy, blanket, or other item that comforts them, encourage its use during the festivities. This can be a grounding tool when the sensory input becomes too much.

Remember, the key is to be flexible and responsive to your child's needs. By planning ahead and implementing these strategies, you can help make the Christmas season more enjoyable and less overwhelming for your neurodivergent child.

In conclusion, creating a neurodivergent-friendly Christmas environment requires understanding, patience, and thoughtful planning. The aim isn't to eliminate the festive cheer but to adapt it to be more inclusive and accessible for our neurodivergent children. By introducing changes gradually, maintaining regular routines, creating quiet spaces, and utilising noise-cancelling headphones and comfort items, we can help mitigate sensory overloads. It's all about ensuring that the magic and joy of Christmas is accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Each child is unique, so don't be disheartened if some strategies don't work as expected; keep trying, modifying, and learning. This Christmas, let's celebrate diversity, promote inclusivity and build a holiday season that radiates love, acceptance, and understanding.