Aussie mum Kathrine Peereboom has opened up about why Christmas can be a particularly difficult time of year for those on the autism spectrum.
As a mum to three autistic boys with very high support needs, Katherine says there needs to be more awareness of autism in the community, especially during the holiday period, as people are having parties or gatherings, gifting presents, and regular routines are altered.
“Christmas in our home has had more misses than hits to be honest,” Katherine tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
“But this year I think it will be different. Two of our boys have started to understand the concept of gift giving so our tree will be full of toys that hopefully delight.”
Katherine says despite the high rate of autism, community understanding about the condition or how to interact with people on the spectrum needs greater awareness.
“Sadly, a lot of children and adults with autism feel isolated and are excluded from social activities at school and at work because people don’t understand how to engage with them,” she explains.
“As a result, those individuals suffer because they are excluded.”
When it comes to her own previous experiences around Christmas, Katherine admits they often remain separated from family.
“In the past we have been isolated from family by choice and other attempts have seen us last five minutes at a family member's home. One year we lasted a few hours,” she tells us.
“The amount of people, tree lights, Christmas carols, and Santa can become overwhelming, so we always follow our boys' lead as to when we leave or transition to something familiar back at our home.”
Though even when at home, adjustments are made for Oliver, seven, Joshua, six, and Tyler, five.
“Our tree, decorations, stockings and my Christmas carol singing have gained acceptance over the years which is really exciting,” the mum says. “Baubles don’t get attacked as much and the lights have now become fascinating.
“Our boys enjoy very specific foods daily but on Christmas we always have an extra special treat they will enjoy making the day feel different.”
One in 70 people in Australia have Autism Spectrum Disorder. According to the 2017 Autism in Australia report, autism is most prevalent among children aged five to 14, with 83 per cent of Australians with an autism diagnosis aged under 25.
Given her own experience, Katherine founded Spectrum Support, a not for profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness of autism and providing training, support and education.
“A lot of people don’t even realise that a person may have autism – they just get labelled as odd or weird,” she says.
“If people knew more about autism, they may be more inclined to make an effort and understand why someone is behaving differently.”
She says it has been heartbreaking as a parent to see her child excluded, particularly during the festive time of year.
“Sadly, this is something my boys experience often,” she says. “Every other kid gets a birthday invitation, or something else just popped up, or the play date gets cancelled, and even as parents the invitations for social get togethers just dried up.
“It’s hard to comprehend what others must think about us, but we strive to be included and have a community of friends for our boys and ourselves too.”
Katherine hopes people will learn to be more considerate and inclusive, particularly during the ‘overwhelming’ time that is Christmas. Mostly she just wants people to “listen”.
“Small considerations can make a huge difference so please listen to the requests given to you by the individual themselves or the parents and care givers,” she explains.
“Turning down music, dimming the tree lights, and if appropriate having a quiet room available are factors that can make a day enjoyable for all.
“Please don’t be offended if we bring our own food as the boys have limited diets.
“Please don’t be offended, if they don’t want to kiss or hug you, don’t show any emotion when or if they open your gifts or if they sit on Santa’s lap.
“Being a part of such a big day can be overwhelming.”
What do you buy an autistic child for Christmas?
If you are buying a Christmas present for a family member that has autism this year, Katherine also has some tips on what kind of gifts might work best.
“There is no doubt that Christmas giving for different neuro types can be challenging,” she says.
“What one person thinks will work well as a present can often miss the mark.
“We find that presents that deliver a sensory experience are usually more successful than others.
“Presents that involve colours, movement, and sound are ideal as long as they are safe.
“Musical instruments are also ideal gifts. While the noise may not be ideal for some settings, our boys love playing with their guitar, keyboard and percussion instruments."
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