Christmas is over. Presents have been opened, food has been consumed, and our house is looking worse for wear with discarded boxes and new toys strewn about the house. We have made it through what many people refer to as one of the most stressful times of the year - and I am happy. I got the greatest gift of all, a Christmas that considered the needs of each family member.
With two autistic family members (my son and I), Christmas can quickly be overshadowed by anxiety, meltdowns and burn-out as a result of increased social demands and the many expectations linked to Christmas.
As most families know, Christmas time can be challenging for everyone due to the many unrealistic expectations linked to Christmas . Common stressors include family, money, not having a regular routine, and the idea about what Christmas and families "should" look like. Added to that the additional needs of a Neurodiverse family, and the pressure of Christmas can be immense.
With the expectations, traditions and the desire for everything to be just right, it is easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of activity that can leave you feeling drained, tense and the complete opposite of festive. I was no different, and for a long time I strived for the perfect Christmas, to the point that I wished I could give up Christmas all together.
I didn't want my children to miss out, or to feel like they had been short-changed. For years I tried to create the family Christmas of my dreams. Dreams born out of movie shows and promises I had made to myself as a child about how I was going to celebrate Christmas when I grew up.
Unfortunately, my desire for a perfect Christmas left me stressed out and upset that I was never able to create a "magical" festive experience, which the family all enjoyed. Christmas started to feel more like a burden than a celebration. On top of that my son regularly told me that he "does not like surprises" and pushed back on many of the Christmas traditions, and he was always on edge. I was on edge. In fact, the whole family seemed to be on edge.
The complete opposite of what I had dreamed of as a child.
Recognising the needs of my family
Looking back it is little wonder that we were always on edge. My Christmas plans didn't stop to consider the needs of my family.
As a family we needed a low-key Christmas, with limited social demands and plenty of downtime. We need to minimise surprises for my son, whilst allowing my younger daughter to immerse herself in the wonder of Santa, elves and Christmas magic.
I have come to realise that the greatest gift for our family is to let go of expectations, traditions and notions of how things should be done.
Finding a new way
In the words of Amy from A Bad Moms Christmas, I decided to take Christmas back.
A few years ago, I decided to let go of my childhood promises to myself and all the expectations that come with the festive season. Instead, I was going to put my families needs first and to celebrate Christmas in a way that works for each of us. This was not quick or easy, and it has taken us years to find a Christmas that works for us.
This year we spent Christmas at home, the first time in three years. It was relaxed, with lots of downtime. I didn't go to my company Christmas party, and we skipped visits to Winter Wonderland. I did all of my shopping in a couple of hours on Amazon - which meant no running around crowded shops.
I didn't get round to sending out Christmas cards, I didn't get to catch up with all my friends, and I am still in the process of wrapping presents that I didn't get around to handing out before Christmas. But I am choosing not to stress about it. I know I will get around to writing a note and catching up with people, soon.
Throughout December we have kept activities to a minimum, preferring to potter around the house. This has meant that we have been able to find a calm centre in between the few social occasions that we said yes to.
On Christmas eve my son, who stopped believing in Santa when he was 6, carried out his annual Operation Ho, Ho, Ho. After his sister went to bed, he slipped downstairs to help wrap and prepare the stockings to be hung in each of the rooms. This helps him to avoid any surprises, while his sister gets to experience the anticipation of Santa and elves. This has become one of my favourite parts of Christmas, and I really treasure the enthusiasm my son puts into his special Christmas duties.
As we sat down to our meal on Christmas day, we were all relaxed and happy. We enjoyed sitting down together, and then laughed together as we watch films together on telly.
It wasn't the Christmas that I dreamed of as a young girl, it was better than anything I could have dreamed of. A great family moment.
Letting go of expectations and traditions, whilst being open to a new way of doing things is just as important for the wider embracing of Neurodiversity. All through the year. At work, home, and in education.
This is a Christmas gift that everyone can give to the Neurodivergent - the willingness to look beyond first impressions, consider the possibilities of what can be achieved, and partnering together to find ways in which the needs of the Neurodivergent can be supported to accomplish this.