As with many families of autistic children, our Thanksgiving holidays have changed since the birth of our son. For our family, his rigid perseverations, social anxiety, and general feeding aversions added stress to our large holiday gatherings. Each year we’ve tried to safely expose him to socialization in different settings. Some years/settings have been easier than others. This year I’m thankful for continuous social development in family gatherings. It hasn’t always been this enjoyable for us or our son…
Navigating the Holidays with Autism
Just a few years ago our goal was to survive Thanksgiving. This meant that we tried to control our son and his environment so that he didn’t become so overwhelmed that he was terrified at the thought of going to someone else’s house. There were plenty of stressors for him at Thanksgiving:
- Lots of people in crowded spaces
- Loud noise and constant conversation
- Sights and smells of foods he didn’t like
- A different environment without his safe spaces to perseverate on a preferred activity
One of the biggest excitements of the holiday–the food–he could not have been less interested in. This fact, combined with all of the environmental stressors meant that early on in his life, Thanksgiving didn’t have a lot of value in his eyes.
I remember the stress my husband and I also endured during this time. We wanted him to be happy and enjoy the family time, but we had a hard time predicting what exactly would spark a fit. We couldn’t leave him alone for very long with any of his peer cousins because he might decide to throw rocks at them. He also would tackle kids and not know when to stop if they were hurt. He was interested in being around other kids, but only if they would do exactly what he was doing. If they didn’t comply, he would yell and throw whatever he could get his hands on. We felt like spending time with family was important though (and he wanted to see his cousins), so we tried to help him work through this stress rather than avoid it altogether.
Other stressors came from the unpredictability of adult behavior. One Thanksgiving, he had found a map puzzle he was playing with. He loved geography and his cousins were impressed with his knowledge as he read all the locations and organized the pieces. When an adult relative came by to tell him that he needed to put the puzzle away because it was time to eat, he wasn’t happy. Everyone else lined up, excited to eat, but he obviously wasn’t going to eat any of the delicious food since he only ate Pediasure and crackers at the time. Keeping the map with him was probably the only way he was going to be able to sit with his family and enjoy a Thanksgiving “meal.” Instead he started screaming and I had to sit with him outside while everyone else ate and he calmed down.
Today our holidays are much different. He has learned many replacement behaviors and can communicate his stressors. He still has some anxiety in group gatherings, especially for prolonged periods of time, but he is better able to manage it. For a while I felt like we were constantly being judged, even in the eyes of our family for how our son acted. Now I don’t really care. I’m laser focused on providing my son with what he needs to be successful, and raising autism awareness in our family and the world. I’m thankful for all of my children’s gifts, abilities, and his continual development and maturation.
Autism Holiday Tips for Families
Below are some tips for families of children on the spectrum to remember during holiday gatherings:
- Holiday gatherings are not the time to work on social skills. There are too many variables that are out of your control.
- Try to predict what your child’s stressors will be in each setting. Identify a safe space or area that he or she can retreat to if necessary.
- Understand that it’s okay to figure out a schedule and setting that will work best for your family. You don’t need to always meet the expectations of others if your child will suffer in the process.
- Consider staying at home and asking others to come visit you. At home you can have much greater control over your environment and can designate particular areas as safe spaces for your child where guests are not permitted.
- Give your child a break. You don’t have to constantly pressure your child to change and adjust his or her behavior to keep others happy. It’s okay to ask relatives to be flexible as well during the holidays. The pressure shouldn’t only be on your child.