Holidays for kids on the autism spectrum can be difficult and stressful. Mix together a few days without school, a large crowd of relatives with booming voices, the scent of roasted turkey permeating the kitchen, and a surplus of food that won’t be eaten due to sensory issues, and it can become a recipe for disaster.
My 14-year-old sons have autism, and we’ve managed to endure a multitude of holiday gatherings. Christmas certainly isn’t one of the most autism-friendly holidays. How have we survived and maintained our sense of humor and sanity? It hasn’t been easy, but with these tips your holiday might be happier:
Arrive early at your destination.
Before the whole gang arrives, get settled. Explore the new surroundings and find a place to be comfortable. It can take several minutes for my son to transition from the van to Grandma’s kitchen. Allow plenty of time for the transition so you don’t miss the meal.
Bring food your kid(s) will eat.
In our case, that’s usually a fruit salad — plain fruit without sauces or marshmallows or juices. Will my son eat gravy, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce? Not a chance. When my kids were younger, we hauled entire meals to relatives’ homes. Sometimes that meant lunch meat, a cookie, rice crackers and fruit. Other times, it meant homemade chicken nuggets. It wasn’t regular holiday fare, but the boys were comfortable eating it and nobody starved.
Offer to host.
While it’s certainly more costly, I prefer having holidays at my home. (As the kids have gotten older, this has become less of an issue.) Ask everyone to bring a dish or two. When I host a meal, I’m not worried about my kids breaking Aunt Matilda’s antique porcelain bird, wandering down the street, or sitting in Grandpa’s unlocked car in the attached garage. Hosting often feels like less work if I’m not chasing my kids around the block. Another bonus: My kids have items at home to keep themselves occupied.
Bring games or activities for kids to stay busy.
We bring our Wii video game system so our boys have something to do. While other people have the ability to converse around the kitchen table, tell stories or play games, one of my sons is most comfortable doing something he knows: playing Wii Sports or Mario Kart. If he doesn’t have something to do while he’s at my parents’ home, he will open and shut various doors, including their garage door. That gets old (and loud) after a while.
Be prepared for a child with autism to eat somewhere other than the dinner table.
Designate a quiet spot for meals and downtime far from the noise and chaos. (I know a family whose sons used to sit in the pantry and eat cereal during holiday mealtimes. It worked for them.) When our boys were toddlers, we fed them in high chairs in the breezeway at my in-laws’ home. They were too overstimulated and upset to eat in the dining room or the kitchen with everyone else. One year, my son took bites between opening and shutting his obsession: the automatic garage door.
Keep the routine consistent as much as possible.
The schedule is unpredictable during the holiday break when school isn’t in session. Routines are out of whack. Businesses are closed. This can cause anxiety levels to rise for parents and children. During one holiday gathering at our home, I excused myself, loaded up our recyclables, and took my son for a drive. We dropped off recycling because that was our Thursday routine. I knew if I took time to do this chore with him, he would be happier. It worked.
Tell family and friends what you need.
Maybe that’s a quiet space, a helping hand, lack of judgmental comments, or the ability to chill out when Junior decides to flush the toilet 75 times in one hour. When others know what you need to make the day go more smoothly, most people are happy to help. It’s not easy to ask for help, but it’s critical.
Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
It’s not always possible to stay for hours and hours at a holiday gathering. Do what works best for your family even if it’s not popular. My husband and I know when we’ve hit the breaking point and need to get out of Dodge. It’s helpful to leave a family function before the kids are in 100-percent meltdown mode.
Give thanks you were able to be together as a family, no matter how stressful it might have been. Be grateful for nap time if one exists. Be grateful if your child sleeps through the night. Be grateful when your car starts and you can leave the madness behind. Be grateful for the funny moments you surely experienced, such as your son swiping a warm, buttered roll out of your cousin’s hands when she wasn’t looking. Focus on that cup of tea you might be able to drink later in the day.
Go ahead, put your feet up and pour yourself a glass or two of wine when you get home or the company leaves. You’ve earned it.