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Autism, Families and the Holidays: Making Autistic Family Members Welcome

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Updated December 10, 2009

Autism, Families and the Holidays:

Holidays are rough on many extended families. Toss together autism, families and the holidays, and you can have a recipe for disaster. But then again, those ingredients can come together to create a light, lovely souffle of a holiday. What makes the difference? It's all about planning ahead, keeping expectations reasonable, and remembering that holidays are a wonderful time to remember the needs of others.

Know Your Guest:

Autism comes in many varieties, and people with autism change and grow like anyone else. If you haven't seen your guest with autism in a long time, or you really don't know much about them, now is the right time to ask questions. Some possible issues you might ask about include: what are his favorite foods? will certain sights, sounds or smells be difficult for him? does she have a favorite toy, video, or music? The more you know, the easier it will be to set the stage for a positive experience.

Plan Ahead (And Share Your Plan):

Many people with autism fare better when they know just what to expect. To facilitate this, it's best to have a clear plan for your event - even a simple one - that you share ahead. Ideally, you'll even be able to share photos of the spaces where your event will occur, so your guest with autism will feel ready to take part. Plans needn't be elaborate, but they should include details like "you'll take off your shoes at the door," or "after you arrive you can choose between helping in the kitchen or watching the football game."

Set Aside a Quiet Space:

Sometimes, people with autism become overwhelmed or upset, and it can be hard for them to manage their feelings. If you set aside a quiet space (a bedroom, for example) for your autistic guest and let them know about it, they (along with a parent or caregiver) can quickly retreat to regroup. Ideally, you'll also equip the space with a DVD or CD player, so parents or caregivers can pop on a favorite video or music - and allow the child with autism to relax.

Keep Expectations Appropriate:

You may want big hugs and enthusiastic involvement from your autistic guest, but it's unlikely you'll get it. You may, however, get warm smiles, looks of joy, or moments of sincere connection. The trick is to be reasonably about your hopes - and to avoid anger or frustration if your hopes aren't fulfilled. All too often, the sensory and social demands of the holidays make it tough for people with autism to really engage with their hosts. Knowing that ahead of time will help you moderate your expectations.

Offer Food and Gifts That Your Guest Will Truly Enjoy:

Often, kids with autism are young for their ages, or want the same gifts or foods over and over again. While it's a fine thing to help kids with autism to explore new possibilities, a crowded holiday event is not the right time to push the boundaries. If your autistic guest prefers peanut butter sandwiches and toddler toys to turkey and age-appropriate action figures, this is the time to make those expectations a reality. Wait until a quieter, less anxious moment to offer new foods or activities.

Prepare Other Guests to Be Welcoming:

Not everyone is as ready as you are to welcome a guest with autism. But whether or not your other guests are comfortable, they should be as gracious and uncritical as possible. Let them know, ahead of time, what your guest with autism may be like. Explain, if necessary, that he will be eating different foods, or otherwise receiving "special" treatment. Make it crystal clear that comments ("he's spoiled rotten," etc.) are not acceptable. At the same time, of course, even an autistic guest must follow the basic rules of the house (no hitting, no climbing the furniture, etc.).

Give Caregivers a Break:

If you possibly can, arrange to provide your autistic guest's caregivers with a break. You can pay a teenaged guest to "babysit" during your holiday event, put on a favorite video, or play with your autistic guest yourself. The truth is, the best holiday gift your can give the family of a child with autism is a chance to enjoy a normal few hours with friends and family!

Have a Plan B in Mind - Just in Case:

Even when you've knocked yourself out to make things right for your autistic guest, and even when things go beautifully for a while, events can spin out of control. An unexpected glitch, unnoticed by everyone else, can send your autistic guest into a melt down. Often, a quiet room or a favorite video will solve the problem. But sometimes the only good solution is to leave. If your guest and her family simply need to take off early, accept the decision graciously... pack a doggie bag... and call soon after to be sure everything's okay.

Your Attitude, Preplanning and Acceptance Can Make All the Difference:

Imagine a friend or relative who cares so much for your family's comfort that she plans ahead, preps her home and other relatives, and makes it easy for a child with autism to have a fun, comfortable time under stressful circumstances. Now imagine that friend or relative is you. You can "make the season bright" for an entire family without sacrificing a single thing. Isn't it worth it?!

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