Guest Author - Tara O´Gorman, MSW
Parenting a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) during the holiday season means coping with a new set of stressors on top of the daily demands of parenting a child with special needs. Many parents of a child with ASD know that the best way to help our child is to prepare them in advance for the social and sensory challenges that come with family gatherings, public outings, and the extra stimuli of holiday decor. Even with the best preparation, however, we are often hit with additional stress when it comes to helping extended family members and friends understand the challenges a child with ASD is facing during the holidays.
Even well-meaning family and friends may make comments or suggestions or ask questions that can be stressful. Some of the most common include variations of:
- Are you sure he's got autism? He's nothing like so-and-so.
- You should make her try the stuffing and mashed potatoes. She'll always be picky if you don't force her try new things.
- You shouldn't let him spend so much time on the iPad. Maybe he will talk to everyone if he doesn't have his face in a computer for so long.
- She's so smart! I hear kids with autism have low IQs and don't communicate. The diagnosis must be wrong. She's just shy.
- Gluten is only bad for you if you have celiac disease. I read it online, so it must be true.
Moms and dads of kids on the spectrum find ourselves constantly listing the routines and behaviors of our children, often in defensive mode, as if we are relaying terms of hostage negotiation:
- Please do not expect hugs or eye contact. She is capable of both, when she is ready, and on her terms. Those terms may or may not be met today. If she blesses you with physical contact, PLEASE understand what a huge accomplishment this is for her, and do not demand more.
- He may participate in the small talk. He may not. He may want to talk about the Pythagorean Theorem for 30 minutes instead. This conversation is very important to him, making him feel like part of the group, and you validate his feelings by listening and trying to participate.
- We are very observant at recognizing her limits and her ability to reach beyond her comfort zone. When she needs a sensory break, we will let that happen. Even if it is in the middle of dinner.
- When he is ready to leave, we will know it. We will decide whether a sensory break is sufficient or whether it is time to just remove ourselves from the festivities. Please do not be angry or feel sorry for us. For most of us, this plan is 'routine.' If we can get out with minimal fuss, then we feel the day has been a SUCCESS!
Parents often spend so much time 'defending' their parenting plans, that the stress and frustration far outweigh the benefits of spending time with loved ones during the holidays. When our family and friends are understanding and supportive of our unique situations, there is a far more joy in the holidays, for everyone in the family.