Holiday Survival Guide

It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.
It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year.

Whether you’re a homeschooler, or your child goes to a brick-and-mortar school, you’re counting the days until vacation.  We all need a break, right?  I have never been a fan of extreme structure, perhaps in rebellion to my own childhood where we ate certain meals on assigned days!  As an adult, I developed a fondness for spontaneity and creativity. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way that having structure is truly an act of kindness to a child with autism.  So what do you do when school is over and you have “free time” all day long?  The answer is to create a schedule.  Our children often have difficulty generating new ideas, so they go to their comfortable place of “isming” (stimming).  There is no judgment associated with isming, just the observation that they do this to take care of themselves.

  • Create a written or visual schedule:  It doesn’t have to be rigid, and is subject to change or negotiation.  Model flexibility for your child and create trades and deals where you can.  Put in time for yourself to make a phone call, do yoga, or whatever you need to do so it’s clear that your child will have playtime with you or a sibling at some points in the schedule, and at other points, alone time.  The schedule doesn’t have to have times associated with it, but serves as a program of events throughout the day.
  • Add structure to chaos:  On days where you will be hosting or attending holiday parties, a schedule is critical for your child’s safety.  When there is a room full of adults and a lot of noise, it can seem to you that there are plenty of eyes watching out for your child.  You become engaged in a conversation expecting backup from someone else, and this is when your child slips away.  It can be outside, to another room (maybe opening everyone else’s gifts), or to the table of forbidden foods, which means misery for days or weeks to come.  You know your child best, and sometimes the kindest act in a party situation is to have them in a bedroom or other quiet place, one-on-one with an adult.  They are away from the noise and are playing with a rotating set of loving, kind family members.  Set a schedule for the adults involved.  This way, everyone gets their turn to enjoy the party.  You get an hour off from being constantly vigilant.  Your child gets much needed time from the constant state of fright/flight that they feel in busy, unpredictable situations.
  • Dispense gifts over time:  Holidays for our kids and families are not what we see modeled in idyllic television commercials.  Many kids are overwhelmed by lights, sounds, smells (perfumes, potpourri, and other fragrances) and tons of gifts.  Instead of being excited about presents, they often will either walk away or start isming on a piece of wrapping paper.  Instead of opening all the gifts immediately, allow your child to pick one and explore it for a time.  They may look at it and throw it aside, causing the giver (Grandma?) to become offended or judgmental when really it had nothing to do with the gift or its giver, but just the child’s ability to handle it at that moment.  Manage family expectations in advance.
  • Use this time on break to study your child:  If your child was doing really well during summer vacation and then started doing poorly somewhere around September and then seems to come back to well over winter break, don’t block out this observation.  Our kids are some of the most sensitive on the planet.  Make a journal of your observations and think carefully about what the challenges might be at school.  My team of therapists always used to say, “of course school is difficult, he’s autistic!”  I had to gain courage to believe my gut instinct that there was more to school than just autism.  At school there were constant germs, chemicals from cleaners, mold and other factors that were causing my child to be ill.  When he was removed from the school, he actually became much more social because he felt better.  Believe it or not, you have other options.

Remember that none of the above is forever.  As your child grows, heals and develops, holidays do become easier.  Remain in the present and don’t become discouraged.  At age two, my son actually crawled under cars in the restaurant parking lot to avoid going inside for brunch. At that point, a noisy restaurant was just too much for him. He also seemed to despise Christmas, birthdays and everything associated with them. Yesterday, he attended a sold-out holiday concert and was turning to the strangers around him and asking with a smile, “Are you enjoying this?” “Me too!”