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Holidays on the Spectrum: It Gets Better

This article was contributed by Judy Smithmyer, an ASNC Autism Resource Specialist in the Greensboro region and mom to a daughter with autism.

Judy's daughter, Adele, happy on a trip home.

Judy’s daughter, Adele, happy on a trip home.

The holiday season can be stressful for most people, but for families who have a loved one on the spectrum, it can be most difficult.

This Thanksgiving was an example of one of those times for our daughter.

We always have a house full of company. Our daughter is very familiar with these folks, and we always make sure that she is aware that they will be joining us for a few days. Because our daughter is deaf and nonverbal, her communication is very limited, but she does have a pretty impressive list of sight words that she has memorized over the years. I typically use the “total communication” system when communicating with her. I sign, use pictures if needed and her “go to” is having us write to her.

Well, all seemed to be going well on Thanksgiving. The turkey was baking, the potatoes were peeled, and the pies baked. Our daughter was happily watching the Macy’s parade in her recliner and I had written to her of the day’s schedule: Watch parade; get dressed; eat our Thanksgiving lunch; watch football and relax; and BE HAPPY!

Our daughter reminded me of one routine that I hadn’t put on her schedule, and that was GO TO MCDONALD’S. You see, it’s our routine to go to McDonald’s for lunch the day after she gets home on the weekends. I wrote to her that today was Thanksgiving and McDonald’s was CLOSED, (at least where we lived) and that we would indeed go to McDonald’s tomorrow – YES!

She did sit down and eat her meal with us, which was a big accomplishment for her as years past she would never have done that. However, she still kept signing to me that she wanted to go to McDonald’s. She was becoming anxious, and so was I.

So after the dishes were done and all the food was put away, we went on a field trip. I drove her up to our local McDonald’s and slowly drove by the darkened windows and the drive-through. She looked inside and then looked at me as if to say, “But why?” All I could do was point to the sign on the window that said CLOSED.

I did the same with Wendy’s, her second go-to, and the same outcome. I signed to her that it was OK.

She seemed satisfied after this, and we got back home with no incidents or behaviors. Sometimes you just have to see for yourself.

What was my lesson learned from this? As much as you try to prepare for the inevitable, sometimes things just happen and that’s OK.

I wasn’t disappointed by my daughter’s behavior in the least. She showed great control over herself, even though she was disappointed that McDonald’s was closed, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I still recommend to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

So to all those parents of young children on the spectrum who dread the holidays because of all the change it brings … it does get better. Our folks do learn to accept and deal with disappointment. And we learn to not stress so much over the things that can’t be changed.

Judy Smithmyer can be reached at jsmithmyer@autismsociety-nc.org or 336-333-0197, ext. 1402.

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