Every year I drag my four children to a half dozen Christmas celebrations with family members—and to be honest, it does not make me feel very jolly. Two of my children have been diagnosed with autism so things that are supposed to be fun-filled family times become nightmares for not only parents of autistic children, but also for the autistic child. We try to drag them around and attempt to celebrate Christmas like everybody else but we end up frustrated.
The thing that I have come to realize is that my children are not like everybody else and I do not have to celebrate the way everybody else does. I am done trying to be normal. After nine autism Christmases, I have a few tips for celebrating differently so it can actually be a joyful season.
1. Just say no.
My son plops his entire body on the floor like a rag doll despite a few unsuccessful attempts to get him into our family’s house. He does not look that big, but picking him up has become almost impossible lately. He looks at me with his pretty blue eyes and desperately says, “Go bye bye.”
We had a very successful Thanksgiving number one at my aunt’s house, but it appears that Thanksgiving number two is not going to happen. Even though, in my mind, I know this is a bad idea, I still get him in the house. He proceeds to pace around the house trying to escape. During one of my attempts to stop the escape, he grabs my hair and tries to head butt me. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to get him to stay, the decision was made that I needed to get him out of there. He was done.
Stop trying to do it all. I love my family and I love seeing everybody on Christmas but trying to do it all is ruining my Christmas. Trying to do it all is making my children miserable. Bottom line, I am done trying to do it all. I have decided that it is OK to say “no” sometimes and it is OK to not visit every single family member, every single Christmas. I need to think about my boys and the stress I am putting on them by trying to do it all.
2. Buy you child what he wants.
I have spent almost eight years of my son’s life buying him gifts he doesn’t like. I have tried for so many years to push toys on him that are normal kid toys but guess what? He doesn’t like them. This year I have decided I am buying my son a bunch of bouncy balls. He loves to bounce balls so instead of stressing about finding the gift that I believe is perfect, I am going to get him the gift he actually wants.
The problem goes back to us all trying to outdo each other and comparing ourselves to other parents. I have decided this year that I do not care. I went to the store and filled the cart with balls and on Christmas morning, my son will have 20 new bouncy balls to play with.
Let’s stop trying to make our kids want what society thinks they should want. If your 10-year-old wants a fan, buy it for him. Stop worrying about whether it’s a normal kid toy and just get him what he actually wants for Christmas. Encourage your family to do the same.
3. Pack plenty of food.
For every autism parent this might look different. One part of my preparation for celebrating a holiday with my children involves packing food that my child will eat. I do try to offer other foods but it is always unsuccessful. If I want a happy child, then I will be packing my son a few grilled cheese sandwiches, chocolate chip granola bars, and maybe a pack of gummies. I am over the days of trying to convince myself that he will eat when he is hungry. My son tends to turn into the Hulk when he gets hungry and it is not good for anybody. I have no idea why I tortured myself for so long.
Make the season joyful for your child and make him something he likes for dinner. Everybody is getting to indulge and overeat on tasty food so shouldn’t our children also get something they like?
4. Bring his favorite forms of entertainment.
Another way to make the holidays more fun for your autistic child is to bring some entertainment for them. I cannot speak for all autistic children but my children do not enjoy socializing with family or playing with their cousins. Instead, prepare items that your child likes. My son needs something he enjoys and that will ease his mind, so we will probably have a tablet for him to enjoy his favorite shows. I know it is not ideal, but I no longer care what is ideal or normal. My ultimate goal is to have a fun holiday where all of my children are happy, and usually, having these items on hand will distract him enough so we can get through almost anything. Bottom line: finding a way for him to entertain himself will afford us more time to visit family.
5. Find your child a quiet place to go.
I am comfortable with my family and we do not visit relatives that would have a problem with this. I truly believe that some of my children’s success is having a quiet place to go. Usually, I just ask if there is a room they can go to if it gets too loud, like a bedroom or a basement. Obviously, safety is a major concern so be sure there are no exits or items they could break. Depending on the house, sometimes I sit with my son and sometimes I can let him go play a video on his tablet independently.
Sometimes, if there is no quiet place, a walk is also a win. My husband and I will take turns taking our children on walks. Sometimes this works great and sometimes it completely backfires because my children think they are leaving.
6. Talk to your child.
Lastly, get your child ready. I have had the most success just talking to my child. For me this one can be weird because my child says almost nothing, but I notice if I explain and talk to him about what will happen, we usually have some success. Even if they do not respond or if they do not seem to listen, go ahead and talk to them.
We also practice holiday activities. For example at Easter, we practice hunting eggs before we actually go to hunt eggs. Before Halloween, we practice saying “trick or treat” and getting candy. Before Christmas, we will practice opening presents. One of my boys is eight and still has never opened a present independently but we are still working on it. I have encouraged a lot of my family to put his present in a bag so it is easily accessible for him because I do not feel that frustrating my child on a holiday is fair to him. The goal is to make this as fun and enjoyable as possible. Helping your child prepare for the activities and practicing with them seems to help them be more successful.
I have also seen teachers create social stories. I have not personally done this but I have used the social stories that are sent home. These stories help explain what your child will experience and they include pictures. For my son, these are nice little stories to read through as part of our preparation for visiting family for Christmas.
Bottom line: do not try to do Christmas without some preparation. Plan it out, because the more prepared your child is, the more successful the event will be.