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Finding New Traditions in 2020 While Honoring the Old

The holiday season is fast approaching. Late October is typically when our family starts to coordinate travel plans with extended family. You know, the usual: who will sleep where, who will cook what, what time we should leave the house to start the four-hour drive… and on it goes. To be frank, we usually do everything in the same way. For the past several years, I have been saying to myself, “Next year, we will add something new,” but we never have.

Well, that time has come. The pandemic will push many of us out of the “regular” (my son’s term) comfort zone.

Having a loved one with autism can often be the driving reason for “same.” There is comfort in knowing what will happen and how it will happen. My son prefers that the holiday schedule remain the same. It is full of people, smells, and noises, and I know he is grateful it only happens once a year. But what I have also come to realize is that new activities and experiences added to his expectation of “regular” can bring unexpected delight and joy. One friend gave the example that last 4th of July, her family had a water balloon fight. It was so much fun that her son on the spectrum now expects that to happen every year.

Of course, the holidays this year will look very different for many of us. My son has an autoimmune disease, so we will not be able to do the “regular.” He is already getting anxious and wants to see what we will be doing on the calendar – talk about pushing me into finally getting creative. Okay, so I am not that creative, but I knew a team of people who are, and I asked for their advice.

Read on for sage advice and creative ideas that the ASNC Autism Resource Specialists (all moms of individuals with autism) sent my way.


Together while apart

Our extended family is going to have our Thanksgiving dessert together on a video call. We will light Chanukah candles together over Zoom (every household will light their own menorah but at the same time) and exchange gifts one of the eight nights. You know, Temple Grandin said, “Different, Not Less!” regarding our kids. I think that can be said about many life situations, too. It may be different right now, but that doesn’t mean it has to be less! We can all do something simple to make this time special or meaningful or whatever we need it to be! – Nancy Popkin, Charlotte Autism Resource Specialist

We will make Flat Gingerbreads (like Flat Stanley) to send our family that are out of state, with a card attached to let them know how much they are missed. We want our Flat Gingerbreads to be photographed and share in their holiday fun since we can’t be with them. We also are going to make all of our parents’ traditional recipes and be sure the kids participate as much as possible in preparing them. Then we’ll watch holiday movies with hot cocoa, nerdy pajamas, and treats. – Mary Snyder, West ARS


New traditions

Our family will go caroling and sing from the curb in front of family and friends’ homes. We also plan to have the kids paint and decorate masks, send e-gift cards instead of physical gifts, and craft our own holiday cards with some of our favorite holiday images. – Courtney Chavis, statewide Triage Specialist

In India, we enjoyed following the various traditions and cultures. So this year at our place, we will enjoy and appreciate the joy and cheer the season has to bring, though it might just look different. We hope to have unique adornments around the house, like lights for the festival of Diwali, Christmas, and Hanukkah, as the light symbolizes brightness over dark. – Shagun Gaur, Charlotte area ARS

Several of the Autism Resource Specialists mentioned that they will enjoy the relief of having no guests and less cooking to do. They might even stay in their pajamas all day!


Old traditions in a new way

Our son is living in a group home, so we will wait to see what he may be allowed to do. We usually enjoy driving through light events, so we hope to find some virtual “walk through” light events that we can do together. Our son’s anxiety soars during the holidays, and so many times we have found ourselves scaling back – “re-framing” as I like to call it – to try to find a balance for all. – Wanda Curley, Triad ARS

We will do our best to capture and enjoy “moments of peace.” It is difficult, but those little moments are wonderful despite the fact that they are only moments! – Juliette Heim, Asheville area ARS

We will remind our daughter per written schedule that it will be “different, yet the same.” We will still drive through Christmas light venues, watch Christmas movies, and enjoy food and gifts. Our “COVID bubble” will be the same people she sees when she comes home for her visits. – Judy Smithmyer, Triad ARS

We, who are Peruvians, celebrate Christmas the night before. First we go to mass at church, then we have dinner. At midnight, we open the gifts, and we stay up until 2-3 a.m. dancing and celebrating. This year, this celebration will be at my eldest son’s home for the first time. My son with autism does not like this type of celebration, so we do his own celebration of Thanksgiving and Christmas with his grown siblings earlier in the day. – Mariela Maldonado, Hispanic Affairs Liaison

Our son loves the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he will be glued to the TV with shrieks of delight when Santa appears, just like every year. We also will play holiday music constantly until Christmas, just as he likes. Since we cannot be with the grandparents, we will listen to Grandma’s recorded voice reading “The Night Before Christmas” snuggled up in bed. We also have a lovely prayer that Grandma wrote that my son will read before our holiday meal. Our local Parks and Recreation will be hosting a number of virtual events that my son has already signed up for! – Nancy LaCross, Triangle ARS


Have I been inspired? YES! This year we will have the traditional Thanksgiving dinner and attempt dessert with the extended family on some virtual platform for Thanksgiving. We will also explore the amazing culturally diverse holidays of our friends as themes for the days they fall on. Trevor loves celebrations from around the world that he finds on YouTube. So why not take his wonderful special interest and bring it home this holiday season? We will also breathe a sigh of relief as we give ourselves permission to just stay put.

Some of you who are reading this may find yourself feeling a bit sad. Your loved one gets frustrated or angry or has tantrums when you want to try something new. Or maybe it seems as if they do not recognize that there is a holiday. I know both of these feelings too well, as it was not until our son was in his teens that he began to enjoy the holidays. Judy Smithmyer, Triad ARS (20+ years!), reminded us all that she would do her best to help her non-verbal, intellectually impaired daughter participate in the holidays any way she could. One year she heard her daughter giggling on Christmas Eve. The curtains to her room were spread wide so she could wait for Santa. She was 45!

I would challenge those of you reading this blog to post some of your ideas in our ASNC Facebook group! Start a conversation with fellow parents and caregivers. How will you honor the traditions while creating new ones?

I would be remiss to not also say that the holidays can be very difficult for some, and this year that might be true for even more people. “This is a time to hold tight to what we all have in common. Practice peace, kindness, and caring for each other,” says Shagun Guar, Charlotte ARS.


The following ASNC resources may be of help:

Find examples of social narratives on our website to increase your loved one’s understanding in many situations. The Autism Resource Specialists are here to help connect you to resources and are available to brainstorm ways to adapt activities to your loved one’s abilities.

Join an ASNC Chapter to meet other families in your region. Many are meeting virtually to provide support during this time, and all have Facebook groups where you can share and learn.

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