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.
My child with Autism dragged our Christmas tree from the house and stuffed it in the back of my vehicle. We experience this kind of behavior every holiday season but it’s actually decreased in intensity and frequency. Wonderful article
Every Christmas Holiday season we go through a series of events. Birthday 10 days before which adds to the stress of who’s going to come, anxiety, then relief. This starts from the preparation of picking invitations, to handing them out, to the exchanges that happen, anticipation and fear of possibly no one coming, will people have fun, will he have fun and be happy. Then it’s over, we wait a couple of days and buy our Christmas tree, wait then decorate it, wait and do cookies, take a family pole as to what kind of dinner will we have. These have helped our family, with prep talk 1-2 days before each thing.
Later everything hits the fan. Multi Christmas Party’s, a family traditional Christmas eve party, this year the new addition of a step-mother, and family and the changes that are coming along with that – the unexpected is causing upset. So slowly we tread at out house, I turn off the TV more, ask for little things like cookie decorating, Uno card game. game time with friends that like the same game who also have HFA or Asbergers.
This year the upset from the tragedy in the news has added fear’s, and anxity. My daughter is worried people will think that her brother could do the same thing and adding he’s not like that. My son saying he’s worried people at school will shun him, or some teachers and administration will be harder on him and treat him differently.
So this year were treading lightly. Simple que’s given a day or two before to be ready for a simple fun thing to do together like the Christmas cookies, or baking something together now that he’s learning to cook at school – this helps with calming him and making him feel more confident and self accomplishment. But were also prepared for the breakdowns – sensory overload, escape options to gather himself so he can try to rejoin the efforts of celebration.
Then the hello and re-entry to school…. Not so much fun.
This year I experienced Christmas as a parent with a child who has autism. Not that he never had autism before, we just didn’t have a diagnosis and his negative and strange behaviors were easily written off due to his young age and the crazy Christmas season. I took notes this year, seriously. I love this time of the year but it is stressful. We go from Thanksgiving to a birthday to St. Nicks (which is celebrated in our Dutch household) to Christmas straight in to another birthday, all before the new year. There is too much that we can’t ignore or skip. This year we were armed with knowledge and had a loose plan but I took notes. I realized that I need to create a lot more structure and plan a lot more in order to reduce the amount of issues. This of course means that it will be more work and stress on my behalf but I feel it will be worth it in the long run for every member of our family. This means that we have to be very careful about what gifts are given and how many and in which order they are opened (I wish we could get rid of the gifts all together and get people to donate to a college fund or family charity or something). Santa has to be really careful about what she.. ehm.. he stuffs in the stockings because silly string and candy didn’t work out very well this year. I have to take in to account food issues – making sure my ASD child has access to food that he will eat at all times, including school parties. Teaching him the art of polite lies when it comes to opening gifts he doesn’t like from family members who love him a lot. Being OK with him, and all the disapproving glances, reading during Christmas mass and remembering to bring enough reading material to last the entire mass. I made a ton of notes, I’m sure over the next couple of years I will make even more and forget plenty but even with the few changes we made this year, it was more enjoyable and there were fewer issues than last Christmas.