Ah, the holidays: gingerbread men baking in the oven, Christmas music wafting through quaint downtown streets, and grocery stores stocked with frozen turkeys, cans of cranberry sauce, and all the varieties of food that are pumpkin-spice-related.
Another scene runs parallel: The holidays according to families of Autism. While I am able to appreciate some of the warm-fuzzies and grandeur that make up this special season, it is filled with transitions, heightened crowds, and an abundance of purely social opportunities ripe for a few meltdowns – kids and parents alike!
Many are welcoming Autistic family members around their tables this year or hosting holiday events for the first time since an official diagnosis. Some are considering ways to meaningfully serve each member of their families while others are hosting more public events, uncertain of how to make intentional but inclusive accommodations for others. Parents of Autistic children are seeking ways to help extended family members better adapt to their child, feeling overwhelmed of how to politely make suggestions.
As an Autism Mom, let me offer this encouragement: Trying to accommodate is always more helpful than not trying! Here is a list of practical ways you can accommodate someone with Autism attending your upcoming holiday gathering:
Make “normal food” available.
I LOVE holiday food, but my son will want his Aldi Gluten Free Chicken Nuggets and a huge bottle of ketchup. He is not enticed by all the rare and delicious food items that only surface twice a year. It is simply “new food” for him to avoid. In fact, he cannot even have most of the items that make up our holiday menus because of his Celiac Disease. Traveling adds another layer of difficulty.
Designate a place in your home that is a Quiet Place or Play Area.
These areas can be indoor or outdoor (if the weather is nice). Seeing these areas first, will allow the Autistic child the opportunity to explore on their own before the festivities really get going. A tent set up somewhere might be a nice getaway for the child.
Quiet Places may include rugs and soft seating, with favorite toys. Even sets of toys like balls or cars can be used for stemming, which can be relaxing for the child. Think of the Quiet Place as a retreat from intense social interactions or for moments of frustration when a moment of quiet is needed!
Play Areas may include ordinary things you may have around the house like exercise balls, mini trampolines, or bean bag chairs. Remove items that might be damaged or cause injury. Think of the Play Area as a fun, self-regulating space for repetitive play where energy can be released so calm can be achieved.
If your house is like mine and does not have room for that, maybe make a new tradition of going to a trampoline park, bouncy house, or playground before other family members arrive. This is particularly helpful if the Autism family has been in a car for a while prior to arrival.
Make responsibilities light!
Holidays are tough on everyone, especially the host! So much cleaning, cooking, preparing, shopping…. It is not fair for a host to do and provide everything, but it is also extremely difficult for a family with an Autistic child to commit to anything specifically.
Save the prepackaged chips and cookies, portable drinks, or plates/cups/plasticware on your list for them, and let the other family members bring the casseroles and homemade items. While we might surprise you and bring homemade cobbler or baked sweet potato casserole, we can most definitely assure you we will not be up to the challenge of cooking the turkey and dressing!
Think of a special activity you can do together.
Look for special ways to include the person with Autism, drawing them in from the periphery. It may take a while to find something that is a good fit, but it may very well turn into a valuable tradition for them and for you!
For starters, here are some creative suggestions of things to do together:
Play a card game
Do a puzzle
Make a special food item (cookies, bread, biscuits)
Set the table
Make a special ornament
Read a favorite holiday picture book in a special place
Go to a dollar store to select stocking stuffers
Go see a movie together in the theatre while others clean up the holiday mess.
Paint a pumpkin together.
Go on a nature walk together.
Even if the holidays look starkly different from the special traditions of our childhoods, they can still be magical. In your accommodations, always remember to show love and consideration, because if we approach the holidays together with flexibility and kindness we will experience memorable holidays year after year.