I know this has been posted before by writers at Autism Speaks, but it is such a helpful topic that it begs repeating. Holidays are joyous exciting times when families big and small gather to celebrate together with a variety of traditions. Even the seasoned party-goer or the hostess-with-the-mostest can be flustered by the overwhelming to-do list and making sure everything goes as good as can be expected. People of any age with Autism, however, can easily become completely overwhelmed as soon as they walk in the door. Family is talking loudly over each other, Aunt Linda comes over to give a hug, and her obnoxious perfume soaks into everything she touches. Every sense is being overwhelmed with new information– food smells, loud voices and oven timers, hugs from every distant relative, and God-forbid one of them grabs your cheek to pinch it. The combination of everything at once can cause a meltdown which is often taken as a tantrum or being undisciplined to the untrained eye because most people associate those sensory inputs as positive. Do not despair! Holiday traditions are not the enemy and having the right coping strategies in place and making sure there is order to all the holiday chaos can make family gatherings and atypical holiday schedules enjoyable for everyone.
First of all, PLAN AHEAD. People plan out how many pies to cook, tableware to set out, and who has to sit next to who at the dinner table– so why not plan out your coping strategies? I have tried to just “wing it” with crowded events, and I’ve regretted it every time. If you are a parent of an Autistic little one, make a visual aid that has times and places and when certain events will take place, or make one for yourself if you are able to do so. For example, we are going to leave for Grandma’s house at 3:00pm, and it takes 45 minutes to get there. Dinner starts around 5:00, and we are going to have turkey, potatoes, and veggies. If this isn’t something they will eat try approaching them about trying new things positively or pointing out foods served that they do like and AVOID all-or-nothing phrases like “if you don’t eat the food at Grandma’s then you won’t be getting anything else tonight.” If you have been battling with a very strict diet that doesn’t involve new foods whatsoever then feed them BEFORE the meal and provide snacks for during the events that they are comfortable with. Holiday events are not going to be the place to alter the routine that much. One step at a time.
Second, bring a bag with ANYTHING you think you might need. Everyone is different, but my personal bag would have ear plugs or headphones with noise-canceling technology, a stress ball or tactile fidget toy, a hand sanitizer for any sticky substances that I can’t stand being on my hands, and my phone with games that don’t require Internet just in case. I would include a water or snacks as well if I knew it was going to be awhile before a meal. These items or your own favorites need to be on the top of the list of things to bring along with anything else like requested side dishes or gifts that the hosts have asked for you to bring. Parents be sure to include your child’s favorite toys, or let them pick out their own to pack in their bag. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, but don’t let it get out of control either. All 56 beanie babies do not need to come, just 3 or 4 favorites.
Third, it is okay to SET BOUNDARIES with family members and friends. I personally dislike physical contact, but it isn’t a huge problem for me if someone hugs me without warning. This isn’t always the case. Some people with Autism cannot handle being hugged or touched by other people. It is okay to tell family and friends in advance to not touch you or your child. No social rules (as far as I know) say you HAVE to give Aunt Linda a hug or give Grandma a big slobbery kiss. In the age of technology send a group text or message out saying to please be patient with you or your child and to remember that hugging and kissing are not things that are comfortable. Most people will respect this, but they may need a gentle reminder during the moment when emotions are high and introductions are taking place. If it is possible to do introductions gradually a few people at a time then do it, but if it is not possible be sure to have your coping methods ready or have prepared before going in the door. It is perfectly alright to spend an extra few seconds outside doing some deep breaths and positive affirmations before charging headlong into a social nightmare. Once you go in and all the “fun” starts try to remember that it is okay to excuse yourself to a less popular room or a bathroom to regroup, but challenge yourself to stay with it and not spend the whole time hiding or involved in a game. Parents, it might be a good idea to do introductions while your child hasn’t become too overwhelmed but don’t force them to continuously engage. I would suggest setting up a “safe zone” where they can sit and have space to themselves. This can be a place they can either go when they need to relax or where they know they can sit without being squished between Great Uncle Joe smoking his pipe and Uncle Bob who is either snoring or yelling profanities at the football game. Don’t worry if someone decides you or your child doesn’t need special treatment because they think you or your child is just spoiled or entitled– one less Christmas card you have to send out next year.
Lastly, try to HAVE FUN! I know for myself personally that holiday gatherings are borderline terrifying, but I also try to be optimistic that they will be enjoyable. Whether you have Autism or care for someone with it– don’t let yourself get so caught up with trying to please everyone and avoiding disaster that you forget to find happiness and give thanks for what you have. Autism creates unique problems and finding a balance between taking care of yourself or your loved ones can often tip into being 90% worrying about what could happen and 10% dealing with the actual problems, but it doesn’t have to be. If you take a little time beforehand to plan and prepare it will save you A LOT of time later and allow you to enjoy the time you have to spend with family and friends. We can’t solve every problem especially when other people are involved, but we can be proactive in making sure we aren’t left without options.
I may have given you a lot to think about especially as the holidays are coming in hot, but just remember the 4 tips: Plan Ahead, Pack for Success, Set Boundaries, and Have Fun. I can’t promise it will fix everything, but I can promise it will help to make things easier and a little more stress-free than just trying to “wing it” like I had been doing. Whether you are someone with Autism, caring for someone with Autism, or just someone interested in reading more about the subject I hope this finds you well as we head into the holidays– may your fidget toys be plentiful, your ugly sweater not be itchy, and your Great-Aunt Linda ease up on that horrible perfume!
Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays from my family to yours! <3