For most of us, celebrating a holiday can mean a time of gathering with family for fellowship and, of course, food. But for those of us who have a child or adult with autism, it can also be an added layer of stress, not just for us, but for our loved one. Over the years, I have developed my own way of making our holiday meals more “autism-friendly” for my daughter.
Here are a few suggestions from myself and other parents who have been successful.
If your child or adult with autism has gone through some changes since you last saw family and friends, give your hosts a heads up before the visit with an email or phone call. If possible, offer to host the meal so you have some control over the events.
Of course, preparing a schedule of events for your loved one is most important, no matter their functioning level. Having a schedule to remind them what is coming next and when things are finished can help reduce their anxiety and make for a less stressful time for all involved.
I’m a big proponent of having an “exit plan.” Think ahead and plan what will happen if your son or daughter has had enough and is ready to leave, or an unforeseen event triggers a behavior. You can choose a word or a signal to let your partner know it’s time to exit so you don’t have to discuss it during a behavior. Being on the same page can eliminate uncomfortable conversations in front of family and friends.
Bring along a “community bag” that has your loved one’s favorite toys, technology, sensory items, etc. (See our Taking Autism on the Road webinar.)
Review expectations ahead of time. This can be done in the form of a social narrative or written form that they can easily refer back to. The use of iPads for social narratives or schedules are a big hit for a lot of our folks.
Discuss with your child or adult what to do if they need a break or time away from others. Again, this should be reviewed ahead of time to prevent any miscommunication during a possibly stressful event.
When eating a meal in the home of family or friends, let them know ahead of time about any dietary issues your loved one may have and consider bringing food to lessen the work for your host. Many individuals with autism are considered picky eaters; if you know certain family members may baulk at this, discuss it with them ahead of mealtime. If “Johnny” refuses to eat anything green, it’s not worth pushing the issue if it could cause a behavior.
After spending many years not being able to relax and enjoy fellowship with our family and friends who visit every year, I gave myself permission to allow my daughter to eat before we all sat down. I place her at her usual spot at the table, she gets to enjoy the holiday table setting, and I sit with her so she is not alone. This has been so freeing for both of us as she gets the attention she needs, and I then get to enjoy my meal without interruptions. For example on Thanksgiving, while we are eating, she sits in her favorite chair a few feet from the table and typically watches the Macy’s parade, which we record for all of us to enjoy. She is happy, and it’s a win-win for all of us!
If being in the same room with so many people is too much, allow your child or adult to wear headphones or to eat in another room away from the noise.
It is a good idea to let family know if there are topics to avoid or even goals you may be working on. One parent prepped her family by letting them know her son’s current level of “comfortable conversation.” She got them all to agree that the goal for their gathering was to help him increase the amount of enjoyable time he could spend with them. She gave him a timer, and when he had socialized for 20 minutes (his comfort level), then he was excused to have some alone time.
Not every family has this tradition, but if yours does, you may wish to practice the prayer or blessing with your child or adult ahead of time. Some families wish to share something for which they are thankful. If your loved one chooses not to participate, that is fine” as well. The important thing is that you are together.
In closing, if this all still seems too stressful to even think about, give yourself permission to take a break from it all and do what makes sense for your family at this time. Holiday expectations can be overwhelming for anyone, whether you have a loved one with autism or not.
Judy Smithmyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-333-0197, ext. 1402.
Tags: autism, autism acceptance, autism anxiety, autism asperger parenting tips, autism awareness, autism behavior, autism communication, autism social skills, autism society north carolina, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders