Glenda puts autism awareness at the top of Santa’s wish list

Glenda O'Neill and son Christopher. INLT 51-604-CON
Glenda O'Neill and son Christopher. INLT 51-604-CON

A LARNE mum is on a mission to raise awareness of the challenges families affected by autism can face during the festive season.

Glenda O’Neill is an officer with the National Autistic Society East Antrim branch, officially launched on October 5 in the Curran Court Hotel.

Glenda is the mother of five-year-old Christopher, who has Asperger Syndrome, a type of autism, and she knows from direct experience that Christmas can be a difficult time for families affected by autism. To help others, Glenda is sharing some advice from The National Autistic Society for families worried about the prospect of Christmas.

“Christmas is the magical time of year that most families look forward to - sharing a delicious Christmas dinner, waiting for Santa to bring gifts or the surprise and excitement of opening presents.

“But for a person with autism, a change to their normal routine can cause upset and confusion. We have been involving Christopher in all aspects of our Christmas preparations and talking about them. We have explained about putting up the tree and decorations so he is aware of the changes happening in our home.

“In the run-up, we use a large Advent calender so he can see exactly how many days until Christmas Eve and he loves to put each decoration on it. Other significant events can be highlighted by in this way also”.

Glenda also suggested that organising time away from all the festivities, by doing a favourite activity, can help lower anxiety levels and sensory overload and give your other children the perfect opportunity to open their presents.

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects one in 100 people in the UK, which equates to approximately 890 people living with autism in the East Antrim area. The condition affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and how they make sense of the world around them.

People with autism can struggle with unexpected events and changes of routine and can experience hypersensitivity to sounds, smells and colours, making Christmas a particularly difficult time of year. The combined smells of turkey, puddings, cakes and chocolate can be overpowering and nauseating. Electronic toys, bangs of crackers and loud TV can sound like warfare, and the Christmas lights and decorations like a constant assault on the eyes. Far from an exciting prospect, a pile of presents can be frightening and overwhelming and not knowing what to expect beneath the wrapping can cause anxiety.

To help, the NAS is providing advice for families who are struggling with the prospect of Christmas:

n Preparation can help. Highlighting the holidays on the calender can help a child with autism prepare for changes in routine, such as when the decorations will go up and come down, what to expect on different days during the Christmas period and when the festivities will end and things will return to normal. You could also create a booklet including pictures of items to expect, such as the tree, decorations or Christmas food.

n Some children with autism like to help shop for the tree and decorations, or see where they are kept before they are brought out for the holidays. This can help them become familiar with these items.

n Having lots of presents from friends and family might be too overwhelming and your child may struggle with the social element of receiving presents, such as people’s expectations of how they will react. Perhaps a set amount could be given, maybe one from mum and dad and one from grandparents. Any other family members who want to buy a gift could put the money in a trust fund. Giving the child one gift a day can help reduce anxiety, but make sure they know when they will stop receiving gifts after Christmas.

n Some possible presents for children with autism are sturdy trampolines, which are good for using up energy. Sensory toys such as bubble making machines, turn-taking board games like Battleships and Guess Who? CDs and musical instruments can also work well.

If you would like more information or to become involved with the local branch, contact Glenda on 07827 369734 or