Parents of kids with autism may face added challenges around celebrations.
The holiday season is my favorite time of year. The tasty, homemade food, warm embraces from visiting relatives and lots of laughter, expand my heart. But as much as I now look forward to this time of year, I remember when it caused me great anxiety.
Having three children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), my husband and I were always on high alert waiting for a behavior to happen — such as a 30-minute meltdown or inappropriate loud yelling in the middle of a room, or our child’s non-stop hand-flapping at a guest’s house.
Although very normal to our family, our children’s behaviors were seen as rude and strange to others who weren’t familiar with their sensory output. I will admit that when my first child was 3 years old, I didn’t know how to respond to her needs either, nor did I know how to receive help from others.
I clearly recall one holiday when my daughter was 4 — the whole family was sitting in my mother-in-law’s living room waiting to unwrap Christmas presents. There were 20 family members, including eight children, laughing, yelling and waiting impatiently to get the presents. For me, I remember that moment as fun and exciting. Who was going to get what? Who was going to burst into laughter from their gag-gift? Who was going to be overwhelmed with joy from receiving a thoughtful gift? But for my daughter, she was experiencing that same moment as overly loud, crowded and with anxiety. My daughter spent 10 minutes in the room before her little body couldn’t take it anymore.
Overwhelmed with the noise and the close proximity of everyone, she began to cry and yell as loud as she could. It was like she was yelling at the top of her lungs in order to be able to drain out the exterior noise. It seemed counterproductive: to yell louder than the noise she heard, in order to calm down. But because she was only 4 and unaware of how her body responded to loud noises, it was the only way she knew how to calm down.
Of course, being an inexperienced mom of a child with ASD, I kept telling everyone that she was fine and would get over it. But the truth was that she wasn’t fine and that I needed support. I needed to remove her from the loud room immediately and borrow the host’s bedroom, to have her calm down in private.
I guess the saying “You live and you learn” can be applied to every life moment. When it comes to managing holiday stress and planning for the unexpected, I’ve come up with a few tips that are useful to everyone, whether you’re a parent with a child on the spectrum or the host who’s expecting a guest with ASD.
Tip #1: It’s OK to Ask
If you love to host, you probably go out of your way to make everyone feel welcomed at your home. But when it comes to accommodating special needs, you might get overwhelmed at the thought that someone might not feel so welcomed in your home. The saying “It’s not about you, it’s them” applies here. Many children with ASD don’t do well in new environments. It has nothing to do with your home. Children with ASD enjoy familiarity and have specific routines, so new environments can cause them stress.
Remember: Don’t be afraid to ask. You’re not being rude.
Try this: Ask your guest how you can make your home more accommodating for their child. You can also encourage your guests to bring any item that will help their child feel welcomed. It could be as simple as their special blanket, toy or having them drop off their special chair beforehand. This way, when the guest child enters, they see something familiar and automatically feel welcomed.
Tip #2: Pre-Planning Is Important
All great hosts take special time in the pre-planning for the unexpected. Parents of children with ASD do the same, whether it’s a holiday or a simple public outing. Our pre-planning looks like this: “What if my child starts screaming in the middle of a room? What if my child doesn’t eat the host’s food? Or what if my child is unexpectedly rude?” One thing to always remember is that most likely ASD parents are experiencing high stress, especially if their child gets overwhelmed easily.
Remember: Your invitation is greatly appreciated. In fact, the ASD parent trusts you enough to come over to your home knowing that their child might experience a behavior.
Try this: Offer your guest a bedroom to have their child reset in private, and remind your friend that the room is also available for them to recharge, in case they get overwhelmed with stress and vulnerability.
Tip #3: Treat Everyone the Same
The holidays are meant to be warm, joyous and connecting. They also provide new opportunities to experience gratitude and learn new things about someone who you might not have the opportunity to talk to during the year. For ASD parents, the holidays are special opportunities for their children to experience being “normal” and be appreciated for who they are. They aren’t in a special class or therapy or being expected to be treated differently.
Remember: No one likes to be treated differently or special even if they have special needs.
Try this: Treat everyone the same. If a child experiences a behavior, don’t make a scene because most likely the child will forget and resume the party like nothing happened. The parent, on the other hand, might be more embarrassed than their child and may be the one who ends up feeling “different.”
It has taken me a few years to understand that the holiday season doesn’t have to be stressful. I also have learned how to ask and receive support from friends. It has been my experience that my friends and family want to be helpful but might not know how to accomplish it. Therefore it is up to me to familiarize them with tools to help them interact with my children. Some things are simple environmental adjustments like bringing headphones for loud noises or hiding terrorizing objects like vacuums far out of sight. Others are emotionally harder, like reminding friends of their constraints. However, nothing is impossible and with proper communication the holidays can become a fun, stress-free time for all.
By Karen Cervantes Jimenez