a shelf with christmas decorations

It’s that time of year again: For some, a time of peace and joy and love. For others, a time of celebration. For me, it can also be the time of stress and anxiety.

As someone on the autism spectrum, the holidays can be full of difficulties for me. There’s always a change in routine. Sometimes, there may be traveling involved. At some point, I usually end up in a meltdown.

While I’ve never really been a religious person, I grew up celebrating Christmas. I knew Santa would be visiting my home each year, leaving gifts under the tree. The excitement always led me to be so exhausted I’d start acting out. I tried to be on the “nice list,” but every year I wondered and worried, was I “good enough”?

As an adult, I have a much better grasp on handling the holidays. I stick to routine, and I rarely travel. But when I was in my early childhood development class, I heard of a new trend that has me worried for children today, especially children on the autism spectrum.

Apparently, there is an elf, which comes with a story to explain the “rules.” This elf watches a child’s every move and reports it all back to Santa. It moves around each night, but if the child touches it, the magic disappears. The elf is supposedly there to make sure the children behave.

My issue with this is that rather than simply being a fun toy or decoration, it could lead kids to think every move they make is being judged by a powerful man. In class, we even heard of an incident where a child accidentally touched the elf. The child was unable to go to school for three days because they were so upset they made themselves sick. If I were a kid, that wouldn’t be fun to me. That would be scary and stressful. And to me, this time of year is already stressful enough.

So please, if you want to get an elf, or already have one, have fun with it! Use it as decoration, and put it in funny places. In fact, let the kids come up with some cute ideas! But maybe don’t make the children think that it’s watching their every move, or that it loses its magic if they accidentally touch it.

Image via Thinkstock.

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I remember when I was 11 years old, I was in a car with about five teenagers, and I was squished in the back. They decided to play a loud pop song, despite my sound sensitivity, and despite me begging for them not to. I held my breath and prepared myself for the song, but this time it felt different. I was next to so many people, and it hurt. I was hearing loud noises, and that hurt. I began screaming, they began telling me to be quiet. But I couldn’t stop.

That was my first meltdown. Three months later was my first panic attack. Three years later, we realized what was really causing it.

It hurts, physically, when I experience an overload of senses. But I’m thankful for my sensory issues, and here’s why.

1. It makes me love other senses more. The feeling of jelly bubbles makes me laugh. The color of bright blue makes me smile. I also love soft electronic music, and it gives me some physical, joyful feeling as well.

2. It teaches me patience and strength. It’s hard to go places when there are sounds and movement erupting all around me, but I’m forced to do it daily. That means I get tougher and stronger every day.

3. I can understand others more. I’m not usually good at sympathizing, as I have trouble truly understanding people’s emotions. However, with my sensory issues, I believe I am better able to understand some of the experiences of people I know who have autism spectrum disorder, ADHD/ADD, sensory processing disorder, and sensory-related anxiety. With my sensory issues, I also know a lot about panic attacks and meltdowns. I believe it makes me wiser.

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Image via Thinkstock Images

Recently a friend of mine posted online a photo of her son sitting on Santa’s lap when he was a baby. It was a darling photo, the kind many parents hope for, full of sweetness and delight.

We do not have a photo like that because we never took our son, the Navigator, to sit on Santa’s lap. We never even tried.

Even before his diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, I just knew trying to get a photo would fail. Loading him up in the car — outside of his usual routine — would make him tense. If we had tried at night, it would add an element of an unwanted unusual on top of a day’s worth of sensory stimulus.

The crowded mall with its echoing noises, strange smells, incessant florescent lighting, flashes of colors, and movement of many people could have sent him into sensory overload. Add to that standing in what could have been an endless line full of potentially equally unhappy, crying children could trigger more stress in the Navigator.

And top it off with being handed to a potentially terrifying stranger who could barely be seen behind a false beard. It had all the ingredients of a meltdown catastrophe, and I was unwilling to put us all through it.

Still, seeing the adorable photo of my friend’s child, knowing there is a cultural and traditional element to crafting that memory, and seeing the lovely feelings captured in that moment, I wondered for a moment if we missed something.

But just for a moment.

Even though I didn’t have a name for it at the time — autism — I always felt the “traditional” memory of a photo on Santa’s lap would not be worth it to me when I knew, for whatever the reason, it could make my son miserable.

I made a decision early on in my parenting to forgo “traditional” kinds of things if it appeared that trying to achieve it was not going to be worth the cost to get it.

Sometimes we got a first day of school picture. A lot of times we did not, but we got a picture later in the year. We had a photo memory, just not on the first day.

And that was OK.

If I were to stop and think about it, we have probably missed out on some common events and experiences because we chose our son’s comfort over a “tradition.”

But what is the point of participating in traditional experiences if we are not really enjoying them? Or worse, causing potential harm by forcing ourselves to do them, because it is a “tradition”?

I think the only feeling I would remember would have been the misery we experienced and guilt for forcing it to happen.

So, yeah, no photo on Santa’s lap.

What we have instead is our son’s trust in us that we won’t force him through hell for a “tradition.”

For me, that is the best feeling of all.

Image via Thinkstock.

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If you are a fan of subscription boxes, you’ve probably noticed there is a service for almost everything – makeup, wine, clothes, games – and now, toys and educational activities for children on the autism spectrum. Launched by Spectrum Toy Store, a toy store in Illinois designed for children with developmental disabilities, C.A.R.E Box is a monthly subscription service for children on the autism spectrum, ages 13 and under.

Each box contains a combination of sensory toys, products and educational activities, customized for your child’s level of development. “If a parent is concerned about their child’s math skills we may include a board game like Chutes and Ladders that involves counting, number recognition and addition. In that box we may also include an addition and subtraction reusable placemat, fun math flash cards, etc,” Jamilah Rahim, the owner of Spectrum Toy Store, explained. “We would also include a variety of suggested ways to make the game more exciting so that the child doesn’t lose interest.”

Rahim, a behavioral therapist, understands the unique challenges parents face when buying toys and gifts for their children. “One of the biggest concerns parents have when buying their children toys is ‘How long are they going to play with this before they are no longer interested and I have to go buy something else?’” Rahim told The Mighty. “We want to expose the population we serve with a variety of toys to learn from and activities that not only support the use of that particular toy but activities that take learning a step further than it’s intended use.” 

C.A.R.E Box is not the only subscription service for children with sensory-sensitivities. Sensory Theraplay is another subscription service, created by a pediatric occupational therapist, that features sensory-friendly toys designed to help develop sensory motor skills. Sensory Theraplay boxes are meant for children between the ages of 4 and 8 and include toys meant for therapeutic play such as putty, textured tactile toys, fidgets, light up toys and craft activities.

Those interested in receiving C.A.R.E Boxes can sign-up for $44.95-per-month subscription. A portion of proceeds from each subscription will help provide scholarships for out-of-school programming at Spectrum Toy Store.

Image credit: Thinkstock

Animal therapy has been known to do wonders for those on the autism spectrum, but it’s not just dogs that can help kids open up. Cats can too. At least, that is what the Autism Society of Southern Arizona has learned through its Purrs for Autism program.

Working with the Hermitage No Kill Cat Shelter, the Autism Society of Southern Arizona began offering a cat therapy program designed for children on the spectrum.

“[Lee Bucyk, the executive director of the cat shelter] had been doing research on how animal therapy could assist children on the spectrum and the idea of a cat-centered pet therapy program was born,” Nicole Glasner, executive director of the Autism Society of Southern Arizona, explained. “It is a win-win situation for both organizations. Because those with autism can often lead very isolated lives, this is an opportunity for our kids to connect with something very real and very fuzzy, and it is a chance for the cats to become socialized beyond the shelter and get tons of snuggles.”

As part of the program, kids and teens with autism, ages 5 to 18, meet once a week to play with two to three homeless kittens and cats. In addition to playing with the cats, participants learn how to care for animals as well as the ins and outs of cat adoption. The weekly program is free to attend, ensuring all interested families get to participate.

For those who attend, it has been nothing short of amazing,” Glasner told The Mighty. “The children come out of their shell and learn life lessons from these beautiful cats. The program takes steps to teach pet responsibility (pet safety and cat behavior) and routine, while promoting therapeutic and educational interaction between friend and feline.”

No cats have been adopted by participants yet, but there is always the option for families to take a cat home if a special bond occurs.

To learn more about the program, visit the Autism Society of Southern Arizona’s website



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