Admittedly, I have little contact with anyone who I know is on the Autism Spectrum. This isn't by choice it's just part of our lives. I know many people do. And when I asked on Facebook about stressors during the holiday season this topic came up. Parents with Autistic children face a different set of challenges and stressors that I do not. Susi, The Retro Mom, has graciously allowed us to step inside her planning and thought process so we can better understand how to partner with parents like her to help everyone enjoy the holiday gathers in their own way.
Proverbs 31:8: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves……
I was so happy to be asked to write this post! My name is Susi, and I have a 13-year-old son with high-functioning autism. That means that my son is highly verbal, smart, funny, inquisitive and yes, quirky. He is also anxious, leery of new situations, has a quick temper which stems from the anxiety, and is always impatient.
We are gearing up for holidays, which means fun and excitement! But it also means new people and new places and new, well, everything. We are fortunate to be loved by friends and family who are happy to see my son, and willing to accept and work with his challenges.
When you have a child with autism, the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season can seem like the most stressful time of the year. There are events to be navigated, sights and sounds that are overstimulating, and expectations for behavior that can’t always be met. But, in spite of the anxiety-filled moments that will inevitably happen, it can also be one of the most joyous times of the year! As you watch your child work through problems and situations that take him out of his comfort zone and allow growth, you smile and may even breathe a sigh of relief. A child with autism may also be so thrilled by the littlest things that we adults overlook, you may find yourself reminded of the wonders of Christmas all over again!
With every challenge these kids face, they tend to also find happiness, or at least calmness, in simple joys. That always makes me smile.
I wanted to take two approaches to this post, the first is letting you know how I will prepare my son for joining your event. The second will be explaining some simple things that may ease my son’s transition into your home:
Preparing My Son for Your Holiday Event
- I will try to prepare my son before we attend your event. I will tell him every single thing that I know is going to happen. I will practice shaking hands with him and greetings to use, I will tell him about how we will join others, pray, eat, open gifts, and sing or watch tv.
- I will bring food for my son. My son cannot eat gluten, dairy or soy so I will make sure he has plenty of food to eat at the dinner table. I will also bring sweets for my son.
- My son will be in comfortable clothes, maybe not as dressed up as everyone else. I want him to enjoy his time with everyone, and being comfortable will help that a lot. I will bring his iPad, Nintendo, or whatever else will give my son a break from “being social”, which is needed. He is not ignoring you, but he is recharging his ability to be social. After his downtime, he will be willing to rejoin the family!
- I will be his translator for the evening. Although he is capable of letting you know what he needs, feels and enjoys – sometimes his brain gets “stuck” when he is feeling anxious and he can’t get the right words out. This happens to everyone at times, please know it happens a lot with him.
Preparing Your Holiday Event for Our Family
How can you welcome our family into your home, and what can you pass on to other guests to help those unfamiliar with autism enjoy the evening with us?
- Know that my son may not see the world exactly how you see it, but that does not mean that he should be talked down to. Please speak to him in language that you would use to speak to any other 13-year-old. If need be, I can explain anything he doesn’t understand.
- Please do not be offended if he speaks his mind about the smells, sights, or temperature in your home. Children on the autism spectrum are much more sensitive to lights, sounds, smells and the general “feel” of a new environment. You don’t need to change anything at all, it will take a few moments for him to acclimate and all will hopefully be well then. A lot of kids with autism don’t have a “filter” for commenting on things, they don’t mean to be critical it just is their honest opinion and it is valued by their parents that worried their child would never express opinions!
- If my son has a meltdown in your home, know that I will do everything in my power to calm him down. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. He may get angry, cry, pout, or refuse to participate. New places, new sensory input, new schedules may “throw” his behavior. He is not misbehaving. He does not need to be corrected by anyone but me. We may have to step outside and sit in the car, or go for a walk. We may need to leave early. And we will do so to ensure that the mood of your event is not dampened by his meltdown. And although I appreciate the gesture, please do not offer him games/toys/food/choices. He is overwhelmed by everything and needs a break to calm down. And most of all, he needs the person he relies on the most to make him feel secure.
- I will probably not get to enjoy every moment of the evening with you all, and that’s alright. I will need to take breaks with my son, maybe at inconvenient times. Simply being out, with others, and enjoying the excitement of the holidays is enough for this mom to feel re-energized by being surrounded by loving friends and family. If we don’t participate in the family photo, it’s ok this year. Smiling on cue, flashes, having to be in close proximity to others may be overwhelming to my son. Just being there is wonderful!
- Please do not sneak my child sweets, candy or soda. Please let me decide if it is ok for him to have. Saying “a little won’t hurt him” may actually make him feel awful, and then we will have to exit early.
- If there is a gift exchange, please check with me to see if there are any gifts that my son has been wanting or that should be avoided. Kids with autism most often think in terms of “black and white” when it comes to presents. Opening up a gift that might frighten my child, make noise or otherwise upset him is completely worth me wrapping up something in advance that I know he would like. I am more than happy to do so. My son does love, love, love to give out presents! He loves to watch people unwrap something he has picked out for them!
Most of all, please remember that our family looks forward to these special times just as you do! We are happy to answer any questions about autism and our son before, during or after the event in order to promote more acceptance of his challenges.
Susi Elmstedt is a Daughter of The King, a blessed mom to two teens, a lucky wife of a loving husband and a lover of all things from the 1940's. When her son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, it presented challenges as well as learning opportunities. She became his voice then, and thankfully over the years, he has found his own voice. She loves the chance to educate others about how to interact with kids on the spectrum. She blogs at The Retro Mom, which recreates vintage recipes, making them gluten-free.