Learning How to Best Support My Son on the Autism Spectrum During the Holidays


This time of year can be chaotic. That time between Thanksgiving and Christmas? In our family, we find ourselves running around trying to recover from one holiday and gear up for the next.

My son T.J. is 16 and has autism spectrum disorder. Over the years, some of our holidays have been seamless, and others challenging. We have had to find what works for our family and tweak it year after year as different locations, people and changes in T.J. himself affect him.

This year, both T.J. and his brother Peter, 15, had the entire Thanksgiving week off from school. Thank you, school district, for those extra few days!

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we drove from our home in Vermont to my sister’s home in Boston. My sister and her husband have four kids, and the cousins all really love each other. But get those kids together, and the noise level definitely goes up a notch or 12.

T.J. has learned over time to find a quiet spot for himself in my sister’s house and retreat there when he needs a break. Everyone is very accepting of whatever T.J. needs to do to be OK with the increase in activity and noise. No problem.

Thanksgiving day comes along, and we all pile into cars to caravan to our cousin’s house in Connecticut. Our Thanksgiving crew has grown as our families have grown, and we are quite the loving, rowdy, laughing, fun-filled bunch! It’s really a wonderful group of family, filled with love and understanding for our T.J., who finds his own coping mechanisms each year. This year, he spent a lot of time with his iPad and headphones, with breaks in between, and not only was Thanksgiving day a huge success for our noise-sensitive guy, he even stood up and made the most beautiful toast at the beginning of the feast. It brought me to tears, as he expressed his love for his family.

The day after Thanksgiving was another wonderful one back in Boston, seeing the wonderful family who could not make it to the feast in Connecticut. It was a little more low-key than Thanksgiving day, but still filled with activity. T.J. did a great job, and we all had a wonderful time.

On Saturday, as we drove home to Vermont, I reflected on T.J. and his behavior over the past few days. I beamed as I thought of how far he has come — he no longer has meltdowns during the holiday as he has figured out what works best for him, and we have all supported his coping skills during the chaos of travel and people.

I felt so proud.

My husband Sean reminded me as we drove that we needed to stop at the outlets to try to find some new jeans for our constantly growing boys. We knew it would be hectic, as the outlets would be filled with holiday shoppers, but we also knew desperate times call for desperate measures. So we stopped.

Long story short, we knew the crowds might be too much for T.J., so we decided to try on jeans for sizing purposes only and order them online after we got home.

What I didn’t know, and what Peter told me later, is that T.J. was muttering curse words under his breath the entire time we were there. He was really stressed out and holding it together by a thread.

When we finally got home, T.J. exhibited some strong words and signs of anger. The only one who could get through to him and help calm him down was his brother Peter.

After T.J. and Peter were both settled in back at home, I wondered how I could have missed it. Here I was, walking around without realizing that brewing beneath the surface of my sweet T.J. was a stressed out boy struggling with some of the challenges brought about by his autism.

How had I forgotten the years past when my focus was so keenly placed on how T.J. was doing? How had I forgotten his ability to cope with noise, activity and stress is finite?

Throughout the years, we have learned what T.J. needs in order to be comfortable in even the most busy environments. A quiet space for a quick retreat, if possible. Earplugs — I always have a stash in my purse. Deep breaths. Shoulder squeezes — tight ones. Back scratches. And worst-case scenario, leaving the area to collect ourselves. I have learned I need to check in with him frequently, especially in very active and busy situations. But now that he is older, we are teaching him to take the lead in his own self-care. Letting us know when he is feeling tense. Asking for the squeezes or scratches that he needs. Asking to leave the area if need be. Advocating for his own well-being.

This is the latest and, I believe, one of the most important things for T.J. to learn. Advocating for his own well-being. We reiterate that taking care of yourself is a critical part of growing up. Asking for what you need to be OK does not make you a “bad kid” or a rule-breaker. It makes you human. This will take time for all of us to get used to. There is no overnight “fix” for these challenging situations. But with attention to the matter, room for error, and love behind all of it, we know he will learn just what he needs to do for himself to be OK.

And I couldn’t be more proud of him.

Live and learn. Every day.

I hope you all enjoy your holidays with your families just as much as I look forward to enjoying my holidays with mine. With patience, love, respect, room for error and flexibility!

And cookies. Lots of cookies.

mother hugging her son from behind

Lead image via Thinkstock.

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