Hello and welcome to my Christmas Blog. We’ve been chatting about Christmas a great deal in the office – mainly because quite a lot of us are like small children and are really quite excited about the whole thing.
With the fun and celebration, there is also a downside that we’ve also been discussing. Whilst most of the people we support have profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), many also have complex needs such as autism or sensory issues. Lots of people with PMLD appear to love Christmas – the foil decorations that rotate and sparkle can be captivating, and new and interesting activities take place in many homes. As many people reading this newsletter will know first-hand, many people with PMLD seem to enjoy the lights, colours and smells that come with the festive season.
However, many of the people we support with autism have a more nuanced and suspicious attitude to Christmas. We all know how hard this season can be for people who like things in their ‘correct’ place, those for whom it can be terribly upsetting to have a tree inside. Equally, the chairs may all be moved out of position to fit the tree in, resulting in people’s normal seats being out of place. The changes associated with Christmas can be enough to be a challenge for a profoundly autistic person. We’ll also be discussing Christmas regularly with the people we visit so that challenge of the change can be diminished. Predominantly, we’ll be using the principles of Intensive Interaction to support people at this time – and one principle is the importance of the pause – the silent gap that we must not rush to fill. The desire to want to share the excitement of Christmas is natural – but we need to leave moments of stillness.
The second challenge can be a sensory overload. The lights and noises coming from tree decorations can be unpredictable, surprising, and possibly even frightening; it is usually the only time that decorations are attached to the ceiling, and outside the home. For people who can struggle with the pattern on a jumper, imagine trying to process a spinning shining object on a tree, glinting in the light. Of course, almost every home is decorated with the very best of intentions, and lots of people love the novelty. The question for us is how to support a person at this time? Can we help acclimatise them to this? One top tip is to leave one room ‘free’ of Christmas, so that people with sensory overload can retreat to there, or have set times when the lights are put on. Also we’ll be using some Christmas and Winter themed songs to prepare people without the visual (over) stimulation. We’ll also be taking the time to observe how people react to the stimulation, and adjust if necessary.
A third challenge can be families. An increasing number of the people we support have regular contact with their families, but it can be difficult if they used to have visits, but as elderly parents pass on, they no longer do. It can be obvious that some people have many visitors and some very few. We’ll be trying to avoid conversations such as “I wonder if you’ll be seeing your brother at Christmas” unless we’ve checked with the care team first. We’ll try to be mindful of the potential emotional impact of periods of celebration (not just Christmas), as it is likely that we have heightened awareness of loss and bereavement at these times, as smells, sights and signs often trigger memories.
At this festive time, it is good to remember the diversity of the people we know so we can help them enjoy it in their own way. If, like me, you have young children then the excitement is already building and it looks like being a busy few weeks ahead.
Thank you for reading my Blog, and I would love to receive comments and/or ideas for any future topics you might want me to cover.
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and best wishes for a happy and healthy 2017.