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Ways I'm lessening holiday stress for my son with autism

This blog is from Mandy Farmer who writes a blog called From Motherhood where she writes about raising her three children, one who has autism, and her military family life.

‘Tis the season and the holidays are in full swing.  Many children are looking forward to their Christmas breaks. Many families will get together with extended family.  Many families will anticipate and exchange gifts. Many families will have amazing meals all together. And for many, it is indeed the happiest time of the year.

But for autism families, many of us dread the holidays. Our loved ones with autism who already have anxiety often become even more anxious with the unpredictability and changes the holidays bring. Schedules that have worked well for us the whole school year get turned upside down.  Classroom activities change and while they are meant to be festive the changes, noises and additional sensory stimuli can overload our children’s systems very quickly.

And the changes do not stop with the school schedule. There are different smells in the house. There may be traveling to see family and being on the road or in the airport with thousands of people can be terrifying and feel like an assault on an autistic individual’s senses.

There may be holiday meals with foods to which our loved ones with autism cannot even tolerate being in close proximity, much less eat to appease the host. For many, the anticipation of gifts is exciting, but for children with autism the fear of the unknown and wondering as to whether or not it will be what they requested are anxiety inducing and can make them miserable until they know what is in the box. Some of our loved ones with autism could care less about any gifts and that can make the holidays a little different too.

All parents, not just autism parents, have the ideal holiday worked out in our minds. We set these often very unrealistic expectations of all of us snuggled around the tree, happily opening gifts while we sing carols and snow flurries outside the windows. We envision our child’s ecstatic expression when they open the perfect gift. We picture our family all sitting down around the giant ham and eating and drinking merrily praising the amazing meal.

I have found setting and trying to reach these expectations increases my stress as a parent and can make the holidays feel like a big letdown. So, we stopped setting the expectation. We made Thanksgiving dinner but ordered pizza the day before so that our son could eat leftover pizza for his Thanksgiving meal. We just smiled and went about our meal when he got up from the table long before anyone else was finished. We know this year we are too far from family to drive back.  We know that flying with him was a disaster. So it will just be our immediate family this year. That’s always a little hard, but our family understands and honestly, even if they didn’t we would still do whatever is less stressful on all of us.   

His grandma mailed him his homemade cookies so he can enjoy a familiar Christmas favorite even without us traveling. We found a Sensitive Santa event and went to do pictures at a ticketed time so there were no crowds, the mall was closed and there was no waiting. We do not put any presents under the tree until they are asleep on Christmas Eve so that the boxes do not torture him. I have learned to never say “maybe for Christmas” to something he sees on Youtube unless it is attainable and we intend to get it for him. There were no carols playing while we decorated the tree, but he rocked smiling on the couch to Shawn Mendes songs while we all hung ornaments.

I know if I were to go to his school Christmas program he would end up in tears that he isn’t leaving the school with me, so I probably won’t go. I fully anticipate Christmas Eve could have an hour-long meltdown due to a disagreement over which Christmas movie we should watch. I expect he will tell me the kitchen smells disgusting while I work hard to make the perfect Christmas dinner (that he won’t eat). We will most likely eat Christmas dinner in shifts and maybe not at the table. I am sure he will get at least one present from someone that is different from that which he expected and he will probably come off as incredibly rude. I will always prep the gift-giver that we are very grateful and we are working on tact.  He will most likely start asking for stuff for Easter or his birthday the second he opens his last gift from under the tree rather than being content with what he was given. Going back to school after break will take an act of God and a lot of tears, but he’ll get through it and another Christmas will be in the books.

These are my expectations this year. I don’t think I have lowered my holiday expectations over the years because this works for us, but I have definitely changed them. And in doing so, we have a much happier and lower pressure holiday that we all enjoy even with its ups and downs.  

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.