Autism and the Holidays

Holidays can be one of the most special times of the year for all of us and our children.  There’s something magical about reliving the wonder of this special time through our children’s eyes.  I remember as a child, so excited to have time off school to enjoy the holidays and the traditions I looked forward to every year. However, for the autism community and their loved ones and caregivers, holidays can look very different.

A mom in one of my support groups mentioned the challenge she faces with her son, deciding if she should participate in childhood holiday traditions. She’s wasn’t sure if her non-verbal son can understand and she doesn’t know if he even enjoys them.  She said that she felt like a bad mother.  Thankfully, other moms quickly responded that she isn’t a bad mother. It can be difficult knowing when our children or adults understand or enjoy certain holiday activities.  Some responded that the most important thing was creating joy for him Never underestimate what he understands or the capacity he can enjoy them.

Loss of routine and structure during holiday breaks from school, therapy, and daytime activities can be extremely disruptive.  Decorations, blinking lights, holiday music can be upsetting.  My son became overwhelmed by the sight of wrapped gifts under the tree, and he was terrified of Santa.  There are many things to do to prepare for the holidays to make it easier for our loved ones and the entire family.    

Autismsociety.org has some great tips to prepare for the holidays. They explain that by practicing ample preparation, decorating gradually and offering their loved one with a safe place to go work. I appreciate the ideas role-playing and using visuals such as photos of family members who may visit. Offering favorite things is important and calming. Most of all, knowing your loved one and how to bring them comfort is vital. [1]

I found these tips to be very helpful, especially the last one. Really knowing your child and what triggers them.  I’ve found that it has made a significant difference in our holidays.  Also, letting go of my own expectations and reinventing those expectations.  Last Halloween I adjusted a Halloween costume at the last minute. James was terrified and refused to put on the one-piece he picked out.  Wearing a hoodie with separate pants was the answer, and he had a wonderful time trick-or-treating with a friend.  This year, anticipating the same problem, he picked out a similar two-piece costume. Although we didn’t go trick-or-treating due to the pandemic, he enjoyed wearing his costume due to preparation.

There may be a lot more preparation we need for our autistic loved ones, but it doesn’t mean that holidays can’t be enjoyed.  This year, James talks about Santa, unwraps gifts, decorates the tree, and wears Christmas-themed clothes every day. He had zero interest in any Thanksgiving food, but we enjoyed going on nature walks and spending time playing, and I’m thankful for that. Know that things do change, and celebrating the individuality of our loved ones is something to celebrate.

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