How to Support an Autistic Family Member at Christmas

How to Support an Autistic Family Member at Christmas

Christmas can be a stressful time of year for some for a number of reasons. For autistic people, Christmas season can come with a number of challenges, such as change, and sensory overload. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help an autistic family member during this time of year.

Part 1 of 3:
Preparing for Christmas

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1
Consider getting an advent calendar. [1] X Research source Advent calendars can help autistic children prepare for Christmas. Explain to them that you open a door each day of December until Christmas Day/Eve, which is celebrated on the 24th or 25th. This can help them be better prepared for Christmas, as each day they can count down until Christmas. You can get different types of advent calendars. The most common type has a piece of chocolate each day, but you can get others which provide you with different gifts. You can also use advent candles. You can get an advent calendar related to the autistic person's special interests. For example, if their special interest is The Simpsons, you can get a Simpsons-themed advent calendar. Even if you don't use an advent calendar, you can use another form of calendar to note down important events so that the autistic person knows in advance.[2] X Research source
Image titled Decorate a Door for Christmas Step 8
2
Minimise decorations if it helps your loved one feel comfortable. Decorations can be a big change, so it is best to be mindful. If decorations bother them, try limiting decorations to one or two rooms, and don't decorate their bedroom. [3] X Research source If the autistic person finds it hard to cope with change, consider only decorating the house the day before Christmas, and taking them down the day after. Ensure there is always at least one room where the autistic person can escape to if they experience sensory overload. Bright lights can cause sensory overload for some autistic people. Consider having dim lights, or turning them off when the autistic person requests. Tell the autistic relative when you will be putting up and taking down the decorations, and be sure to include them in the decorating.[4] X Research source Consider having some extra decorations for the autistic person to stim with. Examples include, pieces of tinsel, shiny baubles, and snowglobes. You could go shopping with them and let them choose some.

Tip: Keep in mind that every autistic person is different. Some might find the changes in decoration stressful, while others might love seeing decorations. When in doubt, ask what they like.

Image titled Explain Bipolar to a Child Step 8
3
Be prepared to answer questions from younger autistic relatives. [5] X Research source It is likely they will be curious about certain Christmas traditions and why it is celebrated. You can explain the concept of Christmas to them by showing them a book about the nativity. Even if the relative isn't Christian, you can explain that the celebration is very important to some people. Let them know what to expect at this time of year. [6] X Research source Feel free to do research with them. You might not know the answers to all the questions, and that's okay. You can say something like "I don't know, let's search that up on the Internet." You can also have fun finding out about how Christmas is celebrated around the world. This can be especially useful if they have friends or family abroad.
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4
Explain the concept of Santa, to those who still believe in him. Some people can be scared of Santa, so try to alleviate their worries. Explain to them what Santa's job is, and perhaps show pictures to help them better understand. Watching movies involving Santa Claus can also help them understand Santa. If Santa still causes anxiety, you could have him drop presents off at another relative's house. [7] X Research source If your family member is too old to believe in Santa, remind them not to spoil it for those who still do. Explain that it is part of the fun and it can be upsetting to find out the truth. Refrain from telling them scary myths, such as German Santa's evil counterpart, Krampus, who is said to beat naughty children.[8] X Research source If they do hear one of these myths, reassure them that it's a made-up story.
Image titled Get What You Want for Christmas Step 2
5
Ask them to make a wishlist for gifts. Many autistic people may struggle with surprises. Collaborate with other family members to ensure that you don't end up giving the same gift as someone else. You may ask if there is a specific thing they want, or if there is a certain type of thing. Consider getting them something related to their special interests. For instance, if they have a special interest in tigers, you might get them a stuffed tiger or a book about tigers. Keep an ear out for anything they mention they like, as this can give you clues on what to get. Some autistic people may not like the unpredictability of gifts. You can ask them if they would like to know what they are getting beforehand, or if they'd rather find out at Christmas.[9] X Research source You could also leave gifts unwrapped, or show them a picture of the gift before unwrapping it.[10] X Research source You could give them a gift card for a particular shop or group of shops they like so they can choose their own presents.
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Part 2 of 3:
Dealing With Gatherings

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1
Consider only having a small get-together with close family members on Christmas. An autistic person may find large family gatherings stressful. It might also be a good idea to host the gathering at their own house, to avoid any unnecessary stress. You can phone or video call your extended family and give your autistic family member the chance to speak too, if they wish. Some autistic people may find texting an easier way to communicate. If they struggle with phone calls, offer texting or emailing as an alternative. Show them pictures of the relatives they will be meeting, give their names, and explain how they are related.[11] X Research source If possible, see if they can meet beforehand if they don't know each other well. If you are having a get-together that's not at their house, if you can, try and familiarise them with it beforehand. Let them know where everything is. Be mindful that they may benefit from a shorter stay, or staying at a hotel rather than someone else's house.[12] X Research source When staying at someone else's house, warn the autistic person of any pets beforehand, such as dogs or cats.[13] X Research source
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2
Don't assume they are being rude. Autistic people may communicate differently than a neurotypical person, but this does not mean they are deliberately trying to be rude. Autistic people can be known to be overly honest, and sometimes hurt someone's feelings unintentionally. Some autistic people may resist hugs and other forms of physical contact, or not make eye contact; be understanding and respect their boundaries. Ask before touching them, and don't assume they're ignoring you. Explain to them that it can hurt someone's feelings to have a gift rejected.[14] X Research source If they don't already know, teach them to say "please" and "thank you". Remind them that it is okay not to like a gift, but they shouldn't let the giver know that. If they do something impolite, gently let them know. For example, you might say, "I'm glad you're excited to see me, but I get scared when people hug me without asking. How about we high-five instead?"
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3
Help them feel included. Autistic people are people like everyone else, and should not be excluded. Be sure to include them in age-appropriate discussions. At the Christmas meal, for example, let them have their say in conversations. Likewise, if they say they don't want to talk at the moment, respect that too. You can ask them later on if they wish to take part in the discussion. Avoid talking negatively about them behind their back. As a rule of the thumb, if you wouldn't say it to their face, don't say it behind their back. If the autistic person is nonverbal, allow them to communicate in another way of their choosing, such as text-to-speech, sign language, or AAC. Allow them to talk about their special interests. Although it may not be all you want to talk about, many autistic people feel passionately about certain topics, and may be more than willing to discuss them. Autistic people may struggle to relate to people their own age and may prefer to socialise with people who are older or younger than them instead. Be prepared for that.
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4
Tell other family members about their diagnosis and/or quirks. As long as the autistic person is okay with it, try to let others know beforehand. Inform them on the autistic family member's needs and what they can do to help them (accommodations). You could also allow the autistic person to tell the rest of the family themselves, especially if they are older. For example, you could say "Maya's autistic. She doesn't like hugs, but she loves bees. I'm sure she'd be happy to talk to you about bees." or "Lennon is autistic. This means he may struggle with communication. Please don't assume he is being rude if he doesn't respond to you instantly, he prefers to think first." Highlight their positive traits too. Avoid talking about autism as a burden; instead, mention their strengths, and what they may need help with.
Image titled Become More Confident Around Girls_Guys Step 4
5
Let them be themselves. Autistic people may act differently to non-autistic people, and this is okay. As long as they are not hurting themselves or others, don't stop them from engaging in behaviours that aren't seen as "neurotypical", such as stimming, not making eye contact, choosing not to interact with large groups, or focusing on their special interest. Don't act embarrassed or draw unnecessary attention to any harmless behaviours that may seem abnormal to neurotypicals, treat them as natural. Some autistic people benefit from having a comfort object with them. This can be anything, from a stuffed animal, a pencil, to a bracelet. Don't judge them for it, or try to take it away from them, even as a joke. If someone is being judgmental, let them know that the autistic person is doing nothing wrong. For example, you could say "Gran, I know Rihanna is flapping her hands. She is doing it because she is excited. Please don't stop her from expressing her emotions." or "Jenson looks happy enough playing alone with his marble run. Perhaps let him be for now as he is enjoying himself."
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Keep the noise down. Hypersensitive autistic people may struggle with loud sounds, so try to avoid them as much as possible. Avoid shouting, turn any music down (your neighbors might appreciate this too!), and if you are watching TV, turn the volume down and put on subtitles. If loud noises are unavoidable, offer them some earplugs, or let them listen to music using headphones. Let them have a say in the Christmas playlist. If you're playing music, add some songs which you know they'll like and can stim to.
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Let them escape to another room if things get too much. Keep at least one room available for if someone needs some space. Sensory overload can mean that it's hard to stay in busy places, so have someone where they can retract to to get away from it all. Provide some stimming toys or items, such as a weighted blanket, stress balls, jewellery, lava lamps, etc. Keep an eye out for any signs of sensory overload. If you see it coming on, take them to one side and ask them if there is anything you can do to help, or if they would like to go to another room. For example you could say, "Charley, I noticed you are covering your ears. Would you like us to speak quieter? You could also go to your bedroom if things get too much." You may also choose to have different rooms for different activities, for example a room for eating, a room for socialising, and a room for playing.[15] X Research source
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Part 3 of 3:
Celebrating Christmas Day

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1
Understand that Christmas can be anything. [16] X Research source With an autistic family member, you may end up celebrating Christmas in a different way than you expected. Try to be flexible; Christmas is celebrated differently by everyone. You may end up adopting unique traditions, or doing things in an original way. For example, you may find yourself going for a walk on the beach after the Christmas meal, or having a bright pink Christmas tree. Embrace these special quirks, after all it would be boring if everyone did everything the same way. Ask your family member what they enjoy, and incorporate it into your festive fun.
Image titled Get to Sleep on Christmas Eve Step 22
2
Try to keep some aspects of Christmas the same as usual. [17] X Research source Autistic people may struggle with changes to routine, so try to keep the schedule as close as you can to an ordinary day, for example waking up at the same time, having breakfast first, etc. Not all presents have to be opened on Christmas morning. Another option is to let them open gifts on the run up to Christmas instead.[18] X Research source Ensure that they have regular meals, and snacks in between, if needed. Having an empty stomach can affect anyone's mood.
Image titled Create a Harry Potter Bedroom Step 5
3
Consider getting gifts related to their special interest. Pay close attention to their wishlist, and try to get something you know they'll like. You can also ask them what they are interested in, and what specific aspect of it to get a clearer idea of what they want. You may also wrap the present in wrapping paper related to their special interest, or get them a card relating to it, if you can find such a thing.
Image titled Wear an Oversized Hoodie Step 1
4
Let them wear clothes they feel comfortable in. [19] X Research source Some autistic people may be hypertactile, meaning some textures/materials can be uncomfortable. Let them plan their outfit the day before, if they wish. Try to avoid scratchy fabrics, such as those from Christmas jumpers. If necessary, remove labels from any clothes they are wearing. You may want to take them shopping before Christmas to choose an outfit to wear on the day. If you are giving them clothes for Christmas, be mindful that they may find the texture of some fabrics distressing. Try to choose fabric that is easy on the skin. Cotton usually works. Don't be offended if they choose not to wear the clothes they've got for Christmas, they may prefer to wear something else due to sensory issues, or need to plan outfits in advance. Consider getting them clothes they can stim with. This includes soft fabrics, stuff with strings (such as hoodies), or fur.
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5
Be aware of any sensory needs during the Christmas meal. Some autistic people may struggle with the taste, texture, or smell of certain foods. Try to keep spices separate from the foods, so they can add on however much they want. They may also not like certain foods getting mixed together, or touching on their plate. If they are old enough, let them serve themselves. Plan the menu beforehand, collaborating with your autistic family member, and ensure there is something they like, even if it doesn't follow the "traditional" festive menu. Pulling Christmas crackers can be overwhelming for some autistic people. If they are sensitive to loud sounds, ask them if they would like to leave while the crackers are being pulled, or if they would like to wear ear defenders.
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Part 1 of 3:
Preparing for Christmas

Image titled Make an Advent Calendar Step 8
1
Consider getting an advent calendar. [1] X Research source Advent calendars can help autistic children prepare for Christmas. Explain to them that you open a door each day of December until Christmas Day/Eve, which is celebrated on the 24th or 25th. This can help them be better prepared for Christmas, as each day they can count down until Christmas. You can get different types of advent calendars. The most common type has a piece of chocolate each day, but you can get others which provide you with different gifts. You can also use advent candles. You can get an advent calendar related to the autistic person's special interests. For example, if their special interest is The Simpsons, you can get a Simpsons-themed advent calendar. Even if you don't use an advent calendar, you can use another form of calendar to note down important events so that the autistic person knows in advance.[2] X Research source
Image titled Decorate a Door for Christmas Step 8
2
Minimise decorations if it helps your loved one feel comfortable. Decorations can be a big change, so it is best to be mindful. If decorations bother them, try limiting decorations to one or two rooms, and don't decorate their bedroom. [3] X Research source If the autistic person finds it hard to cope with change, consider only decorating the house the day before Christmas, and taking them down the day after. Ensure there is always at least one room where the autistic person can escape to if they experience sensory overload. Bright lights can cause sensory overload for some autistic people. Consider having dim lights, or turning them off when the autistic person requests. Tell the autistic relative when you will be putting up and taking down the decorations, and be sure to include them in the decorating.[4] X Research source Consider having some extra decorations for the autistic person to stim with. Examples include, pieces of tinsel, shiny baubles, and snowglobes. You could go shopping with them and let them choose some.

Tip: Keep in mind that every autistic person is different. Some might find the changes in decoration stressful, while others might love seeing decorations. When in doubt, ask what they like.

Image titled Explain Bipolar to a Child Step 8
3
Be prepared to answer questions from younger autistic relatives. [5] X Research source It is likely they will be curious about certain Christmas traditions and why it is celebrated. You can explain the concept of Christmas to them by showing them a book about the nativity. Even if the relative isn't Christian, you can explain that the celebration is very important to some people. Let them know what to expect at this time of year. [6] X Research source Feel free to do research with them. You might not know the answers to all the questions, and that's okay. You can say something like "I don't know, let's search that up on the Internet." You can also have fun finding out about how Christmas is celebrated around the world. This can be especially useful if they have friends or family abroad.
Image titled Tell Your Child Who Santa Is Step 4
4
Explain the concept of Santa, to those who still believe in him. Some people can be scared of Santa, so try to alleviate their worries. Explain to them what Santa's job is, and perhaps show pictures to help them better understand. Watching movies involving Santa Claus can also help them understand Santa. If Santa still causes anxiety, you could have him drop presents off at another relative's house. [7] X Research source If your family member is too old to believe in Santa, remind them not to spoil it for those who still do. Explain that it is part of the fun and it can be upsetting to find out the truth. Refrain from telling them scary myths, such as German Santa's evil counterpart, Krampus, who is said to beat naughty children.[8] X Research source If they do hear one of these myths, reassure them that it's a made-up story.
Image titled Get What You Want for Christmas Step 2
5
Ask them to make a wishlist for gifts. Many autistic people may struggle with surprises. Collaborate with other family members to ensure that you don't end up giving the same gift as someone else. You may ask if there is a specific thing they want, or if there is a certain type of thing. Consider getting them something related to their special interests. For instance, if they have a special interest in tigers, you might get them a stuffed tiger or a book about tigers. Keep an ear out for anything they mention they like, as this can give you clues on what to get. Some autistic people may not like the unpredictability of gifts. You can ask them if they would like to know what they are getting beforehand, or if they'd rather find out at Christmas.[9] X Research source You could also leave gifts unwrapped, or show them a picture of the gift before unwrapping it.[10] X Research source You could give them a gift card for a particular shop or group of shops they like so they can choose their own presents.
Advertisement

Part 2 of 3:
Dealing With Gatherings

Image titled Deal With Porn Addiction Step 8
1
Consider only having a small get-together with close family members on Christmas. An autistic person may find large family gatherings stressful. It might also be a good idea to host the gathering at their own house, to avoid any unnecessary stress. You can phone or video call your extended family and give your autistic family member the chance to speak too, if they wish. Some autistic people may find texting an easier way to communicate. If they struggle with phone calls, offer texting or emailing as an alternative. Show them pictures of the relatives they will be meeting, give their names, and explain how they are related.[11] X Research source If possible, see if they can meet beforehand if they don't know each other well. If you are having a get-together that's not at their house, if you can, try and familiarise them with it beforehand. Let them know where everything is. Be mindful that they may benefit from a shorter stay, or staying at a hotel rather than someone else's house.[12] X Research source When staying at someone else's house, warn the autistic person of any pets beforehand, such as dogs or cats.[13] X Research source
Image titled High Five Step 7
2
Don't assume they are being rude. Autistic people may communicate differently than a neurotypical person, but this does not mean they are deliberately trying to be rude. Autistic people can be known to be overly honest, and sometimes hurt someone's feelings unintentionally. Some autistic people may resist hugs and other forms of physical contact, or not make eye contact; be understanding and respect their boundaries. Ask before touching them, and don't assume they're ignoring you. Explain to them that it can hurt someone's feelings to have a gift rejected.[14] X Research source If they don't already know, teach them to say "please" and "thank you". Remind them that it is okay not to like a gift, but they shouldn't let the giver know that. If they do something impolite, gently let them know. For example, you might say, "I'm glad you're excited to see me, but I get scared when people hug me without asking. How about we high-five instead?"
Image titled Start a Good Conversation Step 9
3
Help them feel included. Autistic people are people like everyone else, and should not be excluded. Be sure to include them in age-appropriate discussions. At the Christmas meal, for example, let them have their say in conversations. Likewise, if they say they don't want to talk at the moment, respect that too. You can ask them later on if they wish to take part in the discussion. Avoid talking negatively about them behind their back. As a rule of the thumb, if you wouldn't say it to their face, don't say it behind their back. If the autistic person is nonverbal, allow them to communicate in another way of their choosing, such as text-to-speech, sign language, or AAC. Allow them to talk about their special interests. Although it may not be all you want to talk about, many autistic people feel passionately about certain topics, and may be more than willing to discuss them. Autistic people may struggle to relate to people their own age and may prefer to socialise with people who are older or younger than them instead. Be prepared for that.
Image titled Get Rid of People That Hate You Step 10
4
Tell other family members about their diagnosis and/or quirks. As long as the autistic person is okay with it, try to let others know beforehand. Inform them on the autistic family member's needs and what they can do to help them (accommodations). You could also allow the autistic person to tell the rest of the family themselves, especially if they are older. For example, you could say "Maya's autistic. She doesn't like hugs, but she loves bees. I'm sure she'd be happy to talk to you about bees." or "Lennon is autistic. This means he may struggle with communication. Please don't assume he is being rude if he doesn't respond to you instantly, he prefers to think first." Highlight their positive traits too. Avoid talking about autism as a burden; instead, mention their strengths, and what they may need help with.
Image titled Become More Confident Around Girls_Guys Step 4
5
Let them be themselves. Autistic people may act differently to non-autistic people, and this is okay. As long as they are not hurting themselves or others, don't stop them from engaging in behaviours that aren't seen as "neurotypical", such as stimming, not making eye contact, choosing not to interact with large groups, or focusing on their special interest. Don't act embarrassed or draw unnecessary attention to any harmless behaviours that may seem abnormal to neurotypicals, treat them as natural. Some autistic people benefit from having a comfort object with them. This can be anything, from a stuffed animal, a pencil, to a bracelet. Don't judge them for it, or try to take it away from them, even as a joke. If someone is being judgmental, let them know that the autistic person is doing nothing wrong. For example, you could say "Gran, I know Rihanna is flapping her hands. She is doing it because she is excited. Please don't stop her from expressing her emotions." or "Jenson looks happy enough playing alone with his marble run. Perhaps let him be for now as he is enjoying himself."
Image titled Attend Family Gatherings When You Are Autistic Step 13
6
Keep the noise down. Hypersensitive autistic people may struggle with loud sounds, so try to avoid them as much as possible. Avoid shouting, turn any music down (your neighbors might appreciate this too!), and if you are watching TV, turn the volume down and put on subtitles. If loud noises are unavoidable, offer them some earplugs, or let them listen to music using headphones. Let them have a say in the Christmas playlist. If you're playing music, add some songs which you know they'll like and can stim to.
Image titled Help a Hypersensitive Autistic Person Step 5
7
Let them escape to another room if things get too much. Keep at least one room available for if someone needs some space. Sensory overload can mean that it's hard to stay in busy places, so have someone where they can retract to to get away from it all. Provide some stimming toys or items, such as a weighted blanket, stress balls, jewellery, lava lamps, etc. Keep an eye out for any signs of sensory overload. If you see it coming on, take them to one side and ask them if there is anything you can do to help, or if they would like to go to another room. For example you could say, "Charley, I noticed you are covering your ears. Would you like us to speak quieter? You could also go to your bedroom if things get too much." You may also choose to have different rooms for different activities, for example a room for eating, a room for socialising, and a room for playing.[15] X Research source
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Part 3 of 3:
Celebrating Christmas Day

Image titled Make Christmas Eve As Special As Christmas Step 8
1
Understand that Christmas can be anything. [16] X Research source With an autistic family member, you may end up celebrating Christmas in a different way than you expected. Try to be flexible; Christmas is celebrated differently by everyone. You may end up adopting unique traditions, or doing things in an original way. For example, you may find yourself going for a walk on the beach after the Christmas meal, or having a bright pink Christmas tree. Embrace these special quirks, after all it would be boring if everyone did everything the same way. Ask your family member what they enjoy, and incorporate it into your festive fun.
Image titled Get to Sleep on Christmas Eve Step 22
2
Try to keep some aspects of Christmas the same as usual. [17] X Research source Autistic people may struggle with changes to routine, so try to keep the schedule as close as you can to an ordinary day, for example waking up at the same time, having breakfast first, etc. Not all presents have to be opened on Christmas morning. Another option is to let them open gifts on the run up to Christmas instead.[18] X Research source Ensure that they have regular meals, and snacks in between, if needed. Having an empty stomach can affect anyone's mood.
Image titled Create a Harry Potter Bedroom Step 5
3
Consider getting gifts related to their special interest. Pay close attention to their wishlist, and try to get something you know they'll like. You can also ask them what they are interested in, and what specific aspect of it to get a clearer idea of what they want. You may also wrap the present in wrapping paper related to their special interest, or get them a card relating to it, if you can find such a thing.
Image titled Wear an Oversized Hoodie Step 1
4
Let them wear clothes they feel comfortable in. [19] X Research source Some autistic people may be hypertactile, meaning some textures/materials can be uncomfortable. Let them plan their outfit the day before, if they wish. Try to avoid scratchy fabrics, such as those from Christmas jumpers. If necessary, remove labels from any clothes they are wearing. You may want to take them shopping before Christmas to choose an outfit to wear on the day. If you are giving them clothes for Christmas, be mindful that they may find the texture of some fabrics distressing. Try to choose fabric that is easy on the skin. Cotton usually works. Don't be offended if they choose not to wear the clothes they've got for Christmas, they may prefer to wear something else due to sensory issues, or need to plan outfits in advance. Consider getting them clothes they can stim with. This includes soft fabrics, stuff with strings (such as hoodies), or fur.
Image titled Get Ready for Christmas Step 17
5
Be aware of any sensory needs during the Christmas meal. Some autistic people may struggle with the taste, texture, or smell of certain foods. Try to keep spices separate from the foods, so they can add on however much they want. They may also not like certain foods getting mixed together, or touching on their plate. If they are old enough, let them serve themselves. Plan the menu beforehand, collaborating with your autistic family member, and ensure there is something they like, even if it doesn't follow the "traditional" festive menu. Pulling Christmas crackers can be overwhelming for some autistic people. If they are sensitive to loud sounds, ask them if they would like to leave while the crackers are being pulled, or if they would like to wear ear defenders.
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