Often, we just barrel through the holidays, hoping for the best – but dreading the worst. But, I promise, it is possible to make your holiday experience fun, relaxed, and special for your special child (and for you). I know all the amazingness that your child is capable of. In addition to being the Director of Global Education for the Autism Treatment Center of America® and having worked with families and their children on the autism spectrum for the past 15 years, I had my own personal autism adventure.
At a young age, I was diagnosed with severe autism, with no language, eye contact, or communication of any kind. Completely encapsulated in my own world, I would rock back and forth and flap my hands for hours on end. My parents were told that I was destined to spend my life in an institution. Refusing to give up on me, my parents created The Son-Rise Program® in an effort to reach me. Rather than forcing me to conform to a world that I didn't understand, they began by joining me in my world first.
It worked. After three and a half years, I recovered completely with no trace of my former condition, graduating from the Ivy League's Brown University. And the method that helped me went on to help thousands of families from over 100 different countries.
I wrote my book Autism Breakthrough (St. Martin's Press) to give parents like you a step-by-step guide to implement the techniques that helped me and so many other magnificent children and adults. I am including some concepts from my book in the Helpful Holiday Hints below. I hope that they are, indeed, helpful to you!
1) Let your child cope.
Most of our children perform various repetitive “stimming” behaviors. An increasing body of research is showing that these behaviors are useful and important to your child and his/her nervous system. So, when your child starts hand-flapping, asking the same question over and over, or lining up toy cars, allow your child to do this. In fact, it can be even more helpful if you join your child in these behaviors! That's right, join your child in the very behaviors that everyone else is trying to stop them from doing! Flap your own hands, or line up your own toys! This promotes, for your child, more calmness and more interaction!
2) Celebrate your child!
Most of us dread our child behaving in a challenging way. We worry about it, we look for it, and we try to stop it as soon as it happens. Ironically, this puts all the focus on what we don't want from our children. If you don’t want your child to hit, for instance, focusing on getting your child not to hit actually creates more hitting. Instead celebrate your child every time they do something well. If your child sometimes hits, cheer wildly every time your child is gentle!
3) Explain in advance.
Sometimes, we can be so busy planning and getting ready for a holiday outing or project that we forget to notify a crucial participant: our special child! Before going on a trip or having a celebration: Explain to your child ahead of time (even if your child is pre-verbal) what will happen and why it will be fun for him/her.
4) Give your family the heads-up.
Many of us, at times, feel frustrated with members of our extended family for not being more understanding and responsive when it comes to our child on the spectrum. But, remember, if your extended family members don't live with your child, they won't "get it." If you are visiting family with your child, send them an e-mail to explain what they can do to make the visit comfortable for you and your child. Explain why sudden loud noises might be problematic, or tell everyone the answer your child likes to hear when he or she asks over and over, “How fast does your car go?”
5) Designate a mellow room.
It's very common to go to someone else's house for a holiday celebration. Usually, we just take our child and hope for the best, thinking that we don't have a lot of control over the matter. But we do! If you are going to someone else’s house with your child, designate, in advance, a calm room or space where your child can go to decompress once they begin to be overwhelmed by all of the commotion and sensory input that comprise most celebrations. Every so often, take your child to this room and spend some time alone with him/her.
6) Mimic an outing without leaving your home!
Children on the autism spectrum will always do better when they are not over-stimulated by the many sights, sounds, smells, and unpredictable events of the outside world. You can create an experience in your home that you normally would go out for. For instance, instead of going to an evening parade with a festival of lights, you can put Christmas lights all around your house, turn off all the lights, and play Christmas music at a gentle volume. You may be concerned about depriving your child of a fun holiday experience, but keep in mind that when your child can’t digest the experience, they’re not having the fun experience you want, anyway. That’s why, if you can create a digestible version of the experience at home, your child can take in and enjoy the experience. By doing this, you are actually giving your child more, not less!
7) Avoid food fiascos.
Yes, it's the holidays. Sugary, wheat-filled, dairy-crazy foods abound. It can be tempting to allow our children to partake in this glorious cornucopia. Don't give in to this mighty temptation! The meltdowns, overeating, challenging behavior, and diarrhea that will result will not be worth it, I assure you! Taking the forethought to either keep these foods away, or, better yet, not have them around at all will make your whole holiday experience a hundred thousand times easier.
8) Take the holiday spirit home.
So often, we get caught up in the trappings of the holidays – the tree, the presents, the outings that have to go exactly as planned. It’s okay to arrange fun things, but remember that these are only trimmings. They aren’t the gift, they’re just the wrapping. The gift is your special child. The gift is sharing hope and sweetness with the people you love. Instead of using the holidays as a planning fest, use it to see the beauty in your child’s uniqueness. Use it to celebrate what your child can do, and use it to feel and encourage compassion for your child’s very different way of experiencing the world.