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Enjoying the Holidays with an Autistic Child

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Updated December 17, 2010

Question: Enjoying the Holidays with an Autistic Child
How can we possibly enjoy the holidays with an autistic child?
Answer: From Dr. Cindy Ariel:

Holidays are often filled with stress. It takes work to make a beautiful and fun holiday for yourself and those around you. There is a lot of pressure to make the holidays perfect and fun, and to enjoy yourself while you're doing it. This is a tall order in any situation, but when you add to that the stress of having a child with special needs for whom you also want the holidays to be perfect and fun, it can become more overwhelming than ever.

Everything needs readjusting in your family life these days, and of course you are left with the emotions of it all. It is on you to make warm experiences for your family and new traditions that will help them to feel good about these family years. It's a huge adjustment. It's important at this time to sit back for a few minutes and backtrack just a little. What is it about the holidays that you've always enjoyed? Special foods? Pretty decorations? Certain activities? The gifts? All of it? Whatever it is, start there.

Focus on a few things you know are important to make sure you have prepared around this time. Of course, some things may need modification so that it is possible to enjoy them with your child with special needs. For example, if there is a danger of them hurting themselves on fragile decorations you may have to put them higher up and out of reach, or get new ones that are not so fragile. Some special foods may not be be served. These modifications often bring us disappointment but if the goal is a nice family holiday, it's important and we can adjust.

Make the demands on yourself realistic and don't try to do so much that you feel only frustration. Make realistic lists and work on things one at a time. Looking at a whole month of this holiday season is less overwhelming if you take it in small pieces. You may also have to lower your expectations of what you can really do, but at least what you do will be less stressful and make the holidays special.

Now for tackling the gifts. Again, you may have to step back and change your expectations. Think about your child and what will put a smile on his/her face. Maybe they can't handle the new games that every other kid is playing this year, or the current popular book series, or new sports equipment. But they may be thrilled with a cushy new ball, a big soft beanbag chair to flop on, a favorite food (within their dietary constraints), or even an hour away from all the noise and confusion to walk in brisk weather or slide in the playground. It's not what you hoped, but this part is not just about you. It's about how you can give everyone in your family some warm holiday experiences, and feel good about them and yourself in the process.

These may not be the holidays you once had, or dreamed of for your family. But you can still offer your family the love and warmth and smiles that the holiday glow that many of us carry within us is really all about.

From Dr. Robert Naseef:

Whenever I talk with parents, no other question is pregnant with quite so much emotion. No matter what tradition you celebrate - Chanukah, Christmas, Ramadan, or Kwanza - this can be a difficult time of year. Images of warm cozy family life fill our heads. It's a time to be close, to give thanks, and to look forward. It's a time to celebrate the lives of children, a time that families get together and assess where they are, notice changes and remember losses. There are many dimensions to the holiday season as visions of our own childhood holidays dance in our heads, but there is a special twist when your child is not developing typically. How we handle these times can set us up for a depressing winter season, or it can be an opportunity for growth and love. To grow, we have to acknowledge the often painful loss of the child we dreamed of and the challenges of having a child who is very different from what we imagined. After all, what parent doesn't look forward and envision an excited child having fun with new toys?

A thoughtful mother told me how she was enjoying the holidays this year as opposed to watching her son ignore his toys while she wept. She had learned to be realistic, now that her son who has autism is four. She wanted to buy him that first remote controlled car for four-to-six year olds, but instead she bought him some toys labeled 12-18 months that she knew he would enjoy. She also knows she will enjoy him this way, and she has the hope that he will develop from where he is, especially by becoming interested and having fun interacting with the rest of the family.

This woman loves her son dearly and has learned through her tears and grief to dream new dreams. She is now looking forward to being on the floor with him and following his lead in play. This process of letting go and moving on takes time, but most people do get there. Children with special needs have so much to teach their parents and the rest of society, particularly about accepting our differences and living in peace and harmony.

Holiday time is exciting for children, and children with special needs are no different. About 10-12 percent of school-aged children have disabilities and will receive holiday gifts this season. As opposed to wishing and pushing for a child to be normal, acceptance of the child where he or she is encourages further development. This brings us to an important lesson that all children can teach us in this current season for giving. More than the new toys, it is their parents’ time and attention that is so exciting and wonderful for children. It is the fuel for their development into kind and giving little people. In the consumer-driven rush this holiday season, let's not forget what’s really important. Let's connect with mind and heart to our families and friends and all whose lives we touch. Let's spend quality time together. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many years ago, "The only true gift is a portion of thyself."

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People With Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). On the web at http://www.alternativechoices.com .

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