Having a sensory-friendly Christmas

The festive season can come with the risk of sensory overload for family members who are autistic or have conditions like ADHD. Planning and preparation can ensure that everyone has a merry Christmas.

Good planning and communication in the lead up to the festive season can bring the magic of Christmas in a way that works for everyone.

Tom Purser, the head of campaigns at the National Autistic Society, says: “Christmas is an exciting and fun time of year for most people, including autistic children and adults, but it can also, at times, be confusing and overwhelming.

“Some autistic people find the sudden changes to routine and additional social pressures really hard to deal with. The bright lights and decorations, the different foods and crowds can trigger a lot of anxiety among those with extreme sensitivities – and in some cases even cause pain.”


Before you start your Christmas planning, discuss and share what is important for you and the people you are spending Christmas with. This will allow you to plan in advance and prepare for all occasions.

Knowing what to expect can reduce stress for friends or family who could feel overwhelmed throughout the festive season. Understanding how you can work together to reduce this stress will help put them at ease and ensure Christmas is fun for everyone.

Planning for the whole festive season, not just Christmas day itself, will help family, friends and support services prepare as well as yourself. Make sure you share what you are doing, who you are doing it with, where it is taking place and when with your family member.

Liaising with a school, college or support service can ensure the same approach is taken at home and in a support setting. Visual aids like calendars, lists, schedules and social stories can help prevent your family member from feeling overwhelmed and get them ready for everything the festive season has to offer.


Change could be difficult to deal with for your family member and this is exacerbated over the festive season when social events are more frequent. Keeping to a normal daily schedule as much as possible will reduce the chances of them feeling overwhelmed. Where possible, keep meal times the same and keep food served the same or similar, even on Christmas day.

If you are making changes to your family member’s routine and meals: take their opinions and concerns into account and see if you can adapt your plans. Changes to meals, cutlery and table set ups can all cause stress which is easily avoided or eased.

Decorating is one of the most exciting parts of the festive season, but while decorations can be great for some, they can be stressful for others. Gradually introducing Christmas activities and decorations will help
to ease this stress. Try putting up your tree one day and then adding decorations a little at a time.


Create a designated quiet space at home where your family member can go to if they feel overwhelmed, this can be especially useful around the main days of Christmas when stress could be higher. This should be a Christmas-free area with no decorations, bright lights or noise.

Make visiting family and friends aware that this person might need some time away and give them permission to retreat to their quiet space whenever it is needed.

Before you head out over the festive season locate a place close by which will feel safe and calm for your family member, too.

Thankfully, quiet rooms are now being introduced into many shopping centres throughout the UK, a place for shoppers to escape to if they are experiencing sensory overload.

These rooms already exist at the St. Enoch Centre in Glasgow and Meadowhall Shopping in Sheffield which has a quiet room and a sensory zone.

More shops and shopping centres, including Morrisons and Asda, are introducing quiet hours: a time when shops are quieter and music and announcements are turned down. Visit your nearest shop’s website to learn what time they hold their quiet hours.


Presents are a joyous part of Christmas that everyone looks forward to, but the number of presents, their wrapping and the expectation to respond can bechallenging.

Agree on a number of presents that your family member would feel comfortable receiving in advance, as well as a list of presents they would
like to receive. Share these preferences with family and friends so they can plan what to bring on Christmas day.

Asking your family member if they would like their gifts wrapped and if yes, how, will remove the element of surprise if this is something they find difficult.


If you want to go shopping, to parties or events over the festive period
plan around sensory issues to reduce distress and discomfort for your family member. Think creatively about what will make these experiences enjoyable for everyone and what solutions usually work. Useful items like ear defenders can transform your shopping experience.

Where possible utilise quiet hours and quieter shopping times to shop for presents and the Christmas day feast, or try your hand at online shopping if it is difficult to leave the house.

Online shopping also avoids large crowds or surprises like choirs on your local high street or a sudden surplus of Christmas lights.

If you or a family member would like to attend activities at Christmas find out how and when this would be best for your family member and what adjustments can be made to ensure everything runs as smoothly.

Guidance on avoiding sensory overload during the festive season is available from the National Autistic Society (www.autism.org.uk).

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