By Elizabeth Verdick and Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., authors of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
Here come the holidays! If you’ve got a child who’s on the autism spectrum, life is about to get complicated all over again because of the disruptions to family routines. ’Tis the season to stay sane—the key is preparation.
Some families find that it’s easier to host the holiday dinners so they can choose the menu, particularly if their child is on a gluten-free diet or is a picky eater. If you’re hosting, give your child lots of opportunities to practice table manners up until the big event. Get out the fancy dinnerware, silverware, and cloth napkins if that’s what you use during the holidays, so your child has a chance to practice with the real thing. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have a hard time sitting for the entire holiday meal. Rehearse “May I be excused,” so your child knows how to politely leave the table.
Whether you’re celebrating at home or at a relative’s house, the dinner is usually the main event. How does your child do with dinner-table conversation? Now is the time to practice a few key skills: listening, avoiding blurting, and answering the usual questions (“How is school?” “What do you do after school?”). Without some practice ahead of time, you and your child won’t know what to expect. One family recently shared the story of how last year they brought their seven-year-old autistic son to a holiday dinner at a friend’s house. Each time a dish was passed around, he asked (loudly) if it was gluten free. When the gravy came by, the hostess preemptively said, “I thickened the gravy with corn starch, not flour, so it is gluten free.” His response was, “Good, because otherwise my poop will look just like this gravy.”
This time of year can be so difficult for kids on the spectrum because they have challenges with social skills, and being social is a big part of holiday events. Suddenly, kids are thrust into special occasions filled with relatives and family friends they don’t often see. Events that are meant to be joyous often seem loud and confusing to someone with ASD. A teen girl with autism recently talked about how her family was spending Thanksgiving by themselves this year because last year she “screwed up” at the big dinner at Aunt Judy’s house. At that dinner, Aunt Judy asked the teen girl why she “looked so unhappy.” The girl was blunt (as many on the spectrum are) and answered: “I would rather go to Aunt Beth’s house, but she’s drunk this year so we had to come here.”
Although you can’t prepare for everything, you can help your child manage a few social expectations: smiling, saying “Thank you,” and replying with a general “I’m fine.”
Hanging ornaments, putting up lights, displaying traditional family heirlooms—these are the ways we celebrate this special time of year. In the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to forget that a family member who has autism may see all of this decorating as disruptive and may become upset. If this is the case, don’t forgo decorating altogether; take it slowly instead of making a big display all at once.
Some families find it helpful to create a social story—a personalized book with photos or drawings of what to expect. Share the book with the child who has ASD and involve him or her in the process of decorating. If some of the display items are breakable, be sure the rules you set about touching them are clear, specific, and consistent.
Heading to a new place via plane, train, or automobile is big deal for a child on the spectrum, so plan accordingly. Be sure to bring your child’s favorite foods and drinks, books, toys, and electronics because familiar items are soothing. For kids who are noise-sensitive, pack earplugs, earphones, or an iPod with ear buds. Make your own transportation-themed social stories ahead of time to prepare your child for what to expect. And know that travel delays are inevitable during the busy holiday season: Have a specific plan for keeping your child busy and/or soothed when facing long lines, crowds, and the unexpected.
Giving and Receiving Gifts
Who doesn’t get excited when surrounded by brightly wrapped presents? Children with ASD often have trouble managing the feeling of anticipation and the whole “waiting game.” To avoid overstimulation, you might bring the gifts out one by one instead of displaying them all at once. Help your child understand the importance of quietly watching others open their own gifts. One of the most important skills you can teach ahead of time is how to politely receive gifts. Kids may not intuitively understand that they shouldn’t blurt out: “This isn’t what I wanted,” “I already have one of these,” or “This thing is stupid.” Teach a few appropriate all-purpose responses like “Thank you” and “I really appreciate it.” Emphasize the importance of eye contact and a smile.
Finding Peace and Quiet
Kids with ASD have sensory issues, so plan ahead. Whether a holiday is spent at home or at a relative’s house, make sure there’s a space where your child can go to take a break from conversation, bright lights, holiday music, crowded rooms, gifts, and other stimuli. You might take your child to a quiet room, take a walk outside, or give your child whatever tool he or she needs for self-regulation (a swing, an exercise ball, a beanbag chair, headphones). In other words, prepare for anxiety and have a plan for managing it as best you can.
They’re going to happen, but you can get through them. One family tells the story of when their twelve-year-old son with ASD gave his gastroenterologist uncle a book of “Farts from Around the World” as a gift and repeatedly demonstrated how to push buttons on it to make a variety of gassy sounds. Another family recounts how their preteen son with ASD, who has a talent for and obsession with numbers, is able to remember people’s birthdays and ages; it’s his job at large family gatherings to determine whose turn it is to open a gift as they all take turns, going from oldest to youngest. One year, he got bored during the gift-giving ceremony and started thinking about the new six-month-old baby’s birthday—and likely date of conception. He then figured out (and announced) that the baby must have been conceived before the mother’s marriage date, much to the surprise of everyone there. These uncomfortable moments are a part of family life—and a part of autism. What can you do but redirect your child and get on with the celebrations?
Let your relatives and friends know about your child’s diagnosis and behavior patterns. Tell people whether your child can tolerate hugs, how best to communicate with your child, and what to do if an outburst occurs (they should remain calm and neutral and not try to step in). Sadly, parents of children and teens with autism hear comments like, “Your child just needs some discipline” or “If my child acted like that, he’d be sorry.” This type of judgment is hurtful and completely unhelpful. Educating others about autism is a chance for them to open their eyes, minds, and hearts.
Keeping Your Sense of Humor
One thing many parents of ASD kids have in common is an abiding sense of humor. We laugh about those awkward moments we all face because what else can we do? Raising a child on the spectrum has its ups and downs—it’s often a wild ride, especially at holiday time. Like anyone, we want to enjoy the celebrations, mark the milestones, and make memories. And we can.
Be prepared. Have fun. Happy holidays!
Elizabeth Verdick has been writing books since 1997, the year her daughter was born. Her two children are the inspiration for nearly everything she writes. Previously she shared her personal story, Telling My Son He Has Autism, on this blog. These days she writes books for babies, toddlers, teens, and every age in between. She especially loves creating new board book series—the first books in the Happy Healthy Baby® series are now available. The Toddler Tools® series helps young children and their parents cope with those tough times and transitions that happen every day (like naptime and bedtime). The Best Behavior® series helps toddlers reach new milestones and improve their day-to-day behavior. Elizabeth also enjoys getting the chance to look at the funny side of life in the Laugh and Learn® series, which helps kids ages 8 to 13 get a handle on the social-emotional skills they’re developing throughout the elementary and middle school years.
Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., is a child psychiatrist in Minnesota, and her clinical work focuses primarily on children and adults with developmental disabilities. In addition to her research and patient care, Elizabeth is involved in teaching, speaks in the community to educate others in the field of developmental disabilities, and helps young adults with ASD transition into college and the work force.
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