The Holidays.

Oh how they strike fear in the heart of many a parent of a child with autism. Lest you think I am suggesting “Bah Humbug” to it all, let me explain.

They are supposed to be about so many things –from religious and cultural significance to gathering of family and friends, sharing gifts and thanks for each other. Sounds simple enough.

Perhaps never is there a time though, when both expectations and disappointment are so high. As parents, we’re influenced by our own memories of childhood and by the barrage of messages from mass media about what we absolutely must have and do and be in order for that picture-perfect celebration.

No matter which holidays your family celebrates, if you have a child with autism, chances are it looks a little different –or maybe a lot different –than the images evoked in songs, movies and advertising.

At our home, there are definitely no chestnuts roasting on any open fire. Garland and tinsel have remained packed away in our attic for years as our child has a “string thing” where she waves string-like things in a repetitive manner. I don’t need to tell you why we also don’t have glass ornaments on our tree.

Gathering with friends and family has also changed over the years. When she was younger and much more active, it was difficult to go to other people’s homes so we either offered to host or just had our own celebration without all the relatives.

For a while I was sad and resentful that we couldn’t have a “normal” holiday and that our son didn’t get to experience the same things that we did as children with our family traditions. Rather than look forward to this time of year, I dreaded it, then went through the motions hoping to “get through them as quickly as possible”.

But that attitude only kept me disappointed, stuck in the past, and missing out on what could be. Over the years we’ve had to redefine what this time of year is about and create our own traditions, as unconventional as they might be.

The relief that has come as a result is immense. It’s liberating to be able to ignore the hoopla and hype and focus on what matters to us.

Do we still have some disappointments, stress and chaos? Of course! Only in fairy tales and made-for-TV movies does the snow fall on schedule, everyone loves their perfect gifts, a Martha-Stewart feast magically appears on the table, and no one says an unkind word.  But we’ve figured out how to minimize and better manage these things thus increasing the chances for a better outcome for all.

If you are stressed about the holidays, here are some tips that might help.

  • Lower your expectations. Be realistic about what your family can do -whether it’s limiting the number of gatherings you attend or letting go of long-held beliefs about the way it’s supposed to be.
  • Expect the unexpected. It’s helpful to warn family and friends about your child’s triggers and behaviors, but also let them know that there is a predictable unpredictability when it comes to autism. When plans go awry, we have learned to tell people that “this is just how we planned it” so they know we build flexibility into our plans.
  • Let things go. There’s no rule that says that you have to send holiday cards or a family photo every year. Some years you may do this and others you may not. I haven’t done either for years and everyone, myself included, is fine with that.
  • Dare to be different. Far from the days of resentment over “not being able to do what everyone else does”, we now take pride and find humor in our unique expression of The Holidays, however different that might be.
  • Let others help. If you are hosting, let others bring dishes while you do the main course. If no one offers, ask that they do it! While we’d like to think it’s obvious to all that we need help, unfortunately, it isn’t. 

How has your family redefined or recreated what your holiday celebrations look like? Share with us your ideas for a more meaningful, less stressful season.

For more tips, please see our previous blog on Autism and Preparing for the Holidays.