Autism is our normal. Though we adapt to help everyone thrive as much as possible, our priority is joy when it comes time to celebrate special seasons. I’m sharing these tips on how we embrace Advent as a family with autism, and you’ll probably appreciate this Advent Guide even if your family is neurotypical.
I’ve been curating a collection of Christmas books since before our firstborn arrived. We bring out the Advent book bins for roughly two months each year from the beginning of Advent (November 15 for New Calendar Orthodox Christians) through the Old Calendar Feast of the Theophany of Our Lord in mid-January (also known as Epiphany). Though we have a few so-so books in our Advent bin, the priorities are: beauty, bright colors, and humor.
Here is the first part of our Advent Book Tour. I’ll post the next one here once it’s up, too.
By reading picture books that communicate through art, physical comedy, and interaction, we give even our nonverbal children emotional access to the joy of the season.
As most families with autism know, food allergies, sensitivities, and aversions play a big role in setting our menus. That means that many of us do not follow traditional religious fasts, since we are already fasting by coping with our family’s struggles. Even when we restrict our ingredients to “fasting” foods (no meat, dairy, or eggs, for instance), baking is still a warming, educational, and comforting part of the season of preparation for the Nativity.
Our family uses baking as an opportunity to practice strengthening exercises, turn-taking, motor planning, sequencing, and introduction to new foods, flavors, and textures. Making brownies or cake can be a major therapeutic win for our children with autism. But most of all, it’s baking together as a family. The feelings of closeness, warmth, and fun are still available to us, even if some of us have to take breaks more often (see below).
Shopping Tips: My favorite cake mix that’s allergy and fasting friendly is the Cherrybrook Kitchen Gluten Free Chocolate Cake (affiliate link). We love cooking with the Nutiva Organic Shortening, which is soy-free as well as Vegan.
Here’s a recipe I’ve modified from tradtional methods that meets most people’s allergy and fasting needs:
Gluten Free, Egg-free, Dairy-Free Banana Bread
4 medium very ripe bananas, mashed
1 ½ cups gluten free flour mix (any variety with xanthan/guar gum already added)
½ cup red palm & coconut shortening (Such as Nutiva brand), melted
¾ cup brown sugar, lightly packed
½ cup coconut milk (not low fat)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
Optional: up to 1 cup chopped dates, chocolate chips, or chopped nuts
Preheat oven to 350•F. Grease a bread pan with coconut oil or shortening and set aside. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until well combined. Add in dates and nuts if desired, and stir to incorporate. Pour batter into the bread pan evenly. With wetted fingers, smooth the top of the batter slightly. Place pan in the oven and bake for 55 minutes to 1 hour. Bread is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of gooey banana bread batter. (If you used chocolate chips, the toothpick might have chocolate on it. If so, get a clean toothpick and try another spot or two until you can tell if the batter has baked. If it’s still sticking, uncooked, to the toothpick, add 5 minutes to the cooking time and check again.) Remove bread and pan from oven. Let the bread stand in the pan to cool for 10 minutes before cutting it or turning it out on a plate. Serve warm or room temperature.
Jesse Trees are a great option for teaching concrete thinkers. A Jesse Tree is supposed to be a daily practice where children learn a little about Jesus’s ancestors, the creation of the world, and general background for why we needed Him so desperately and hoped He would come. Sounds sweet, and it is.
Let me tell you a story about our Jesse Tree attempts.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of lovely variations on the Jesse Tree theme. Here are the ones that did NOT work in our household, and why:
- Chalkboard Jesse Tree :: My children eat chalk.
- Felt Jesse Tree on Wall :: My children like to take felt things apart and throw them in the yard or trashbins.
- Sticks tied into a tree shape with twine :: This looks like a ladder, and my children love to climb.
- Chrismons added to the actual Christmas tree early :: All I remember is how many hours of needle felting were wasted when they painted over the ornaments with tempera paint and added playdough.
- Cardboard ornaments :: taste like chicken — or something desirable, because they were eaten.
- Posters :: are made to be torn off the wall to get a closer look, even if that means they’re torn and cause accidents and get trampled to oblivion.
- Hanging ornaments from the windows :: will not stop my children from stacking a diaper box on a chair to pull the ornaments down.
If you’re not laughing, maybe you haven’t been there. If these ideas work for you, great. They might work for us one day, too. For us, here’s what works: lighting a candle and telling a brief story along with a song, and hanging the ornaments from the actual ceiling. I found a sapling today that lies fairly close to the ceiling (about an 8″ clearance), and I’m hoping that it can be our Jesse Tree frame this year. I’ll let you know.
Change the Light
If you’ve been around any Montessori-inspired teaching, you’ve probably heard this phrase. For our children with autism, light levels are always a big deal. We’ve installed dimmers on the lights in our main learning rooms, and the bedrooms have combinations of darkening curtains and different brightnesses of lamps.
We find that lowering the light levels in a room helps the children calm themselves.
In Advent, we start adding Christmas lights and more candlelight to our daily routines. We have some family members who are averse to flashing lights, so we avoid that setting. (You might find that the flashing feature works for your family, though.) By adding a little more candlelight and a little more Christmas (fairy) lights each week, we teach concretely about the beauty of the season and the Light coming into the world. On Christmas Eve, we add a large star light above our dining table over the creche. The coming of the light is a concrete metaphor that helps open the truth of our hope in God to children who struggle with abstractions.
Shopping tips: Our grocery store brand of LED Christmas lights is less expensive than comparable lights from other stores. Check to see if you can find a deal at yours, too. Beeswax cools faster and burns cooler than paraffin or soy wax (and it doesn’t irritate allergies). Search at your local craft or farmers market or online for a few beeswax candles to add to your evening routines in Advent.
I like to sing one or two simple Christmas carols every day throughout Advent. Sometimes the children join in, and sometimes they only listen. We have music lovers in our family, but even so, it’s nice to quiet other sounds when it’s singing time.
Our family’s two carols are: Angels We Have Heard On High and I Parthenos Simeron (On This Day the Virgin Gives Birth). I sing them so the children can hear them, and we spend some time learning the music together. Usually this is soothing, but we pause for another time if one of the children becomes overwhelmed. The simplicity of repeating two central songs helps to keep the overwhelm at bay. These songs become the theme songs for Advent and Christmas, another accessible way to experience the love of God.
Cozy Spots and Away Spaces
With the extra stimulation of preparing for Christmas comes a strong need for quiet time. We’re spending this Advent rearranging our children’s rooms so that each child has more quiet, cozy space. You’ve heard about hygge, the practice of intentional coziness in the winter months? It’s a major factor in happiness for families with autism, too.
For our family, this looks like: soft throws on the living room couches, repurposed crib mattresses under their IKEA mini loft beds for sensory caves, mermaid sequined weighted lap pads, mini flashlights, extra access to sheets for tent-making, living in their cotton pajamas most of the time, sensory bins out in the therapy room for easy access, yoga swings available in the kitchen, hammock available in the boys’ room, HABA tent in the girls’ room, soothing and visually beautiful paper crafts for quiet time, an abundance of lovely Advent books, reading aloud at the table, family tea times with baked goods, letting the little ones hide in their toy box (without the lid), clearing an area so that their foam chairs can be used as crash pads for jumping.
Since we spend more time at church and around friends, it’s important to bring a portable sensory soothing kit with us. Here’s a basic kit, with links (Amazon affiliate links):
- Tote bag or backpack (one you already have is fine).
- Noise blocking headphones.
- Squishy toy.
- Lollipops or other simple, quiet food.
- Visual Schedule if available. (Such as the ones available here for church.)
- A snug undershirt or fitted vest/jacket.
Seriously, moms, I’m looking at you. It’s ok to rest. You need it, they need it. Schedule sleep if you have to, but enjoy the opportunity afforded by the longer nights. Keep your lights warm and dim, draw the cozy near, and prepare by resting.
A Joyous Advent to you!
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