Austism Spectrum Disorder and the family holiday experience
December 11, 2020

Ahh…the holidays. It’s the holiday season once again and for most of us, pure joy and excitement is bursting amongst us and in the cool, crisp air. There’s shopping to do, parties to attend, and lots of gifts to check off your list. After all, it’s fun to give and to receive gifts. You’ve been eyeing things off of the internet or store counter for weeks now, looking for that special something for everyone on your list.  Kids have been writing letters to Santa well into November and may even be lucky enough to sit on his lap (pre-COVID, that is). The energy and spirit of Christmas is one of the strongest feelings around. There are carols, lights, and everyone wishing you good cheer. It’s the most wonderful time of year….

And that’s where the record comes to a screeching HALT. It’s the most wonderful time of year for many, but not for all. What a downer, right? A real bummer! I know I sound like an authentic Grinch, but let me explain. You see, when you have a loved one with Autism, or a disability, the holidays may not be cheerful at all. Better yet, described in one word, they are STRESSFUL!  Many kiddos with Autism also have Sensory Processing Disorder, which is a condition where the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. In reality, this means that heavy smelling candles, cookies and food smell extremely strong. Bright lights look really bright and singing and merriment sound excruciating to someone on the Spectrum. Don’t even try to put your sensory sensitive kid in a collared shirt or a button down as this sensation may have their skin crawling. Strong smells, bright lights and loud voices can actually make someone with Autism physically ill. 

Now, let’s get to the gift giving. Some kiddos (young and old) that have Autism Spectrum Disorder also have trouble showing enthusiasm, empathy and reading non verbal cues. This can lead to lots of disappointment, on both sides, when it comes to gift giving. Imagine a grandmother who excitedly gives her grandson a new football, only for it to be disregarded, tossed aside, and to never be touched again. That grandmother is super disappointed. You, the mother, try to sound appreciative and deflect the awkwardness. Your son is sad that he didn’t receive his 147th dinosaur that he really wanted. You gave grandmother some ideas that included red, green and blue dinosaurs in all shapes and sizes, but she declined saying, “He has enough of those.” Maybe you’ve coached your kiddo two hundred times to say “Thank You” no matter what the present is and have even told your child to lie and say he loves it. Trust me, no one wins in this situation.

Your family leaves the gathering and rather than feeling joy, you feel defeated. So—what’s the solution? Is there a happy medium so that everyone can feel the spirit of the holidays and the true meaning of Christmas? For starters, know that you are not alone. Statistics show that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with Autism every year. Education is key; raising awareness to family and friends about Autism Spectrum Disorder well before the holidays may help. Finally, it is important to manage the expectations of others as well as your own. Don’t be afraid to politely tell family and friends how the holidays work in your world. Make your child’s favorite dish and bring it to the gathering. Unfortunately, if they cannot understand your situation, respectfully decline their invitation. It’s okay for holidays to be in your heart. Nights that are quiet and simple, with activities your child enjoys—even if that is simply watching Home Alone for the 100th time. Sleep well at night, knowing that you are your child’s biggest advocate and will meet them wherever they are in life. Happy Holidays!