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What to Expect When Celebrating the Holidays With My Children With Autism

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My husband and I have five children, including two sons on the autism spectrum. The holiday season is like a carousel ride full of celebrations, presents, laughter and the occasional meltdown. Here’s what I wish people would expect — and not expect — from our family during the holiday season.

Don’t expect a conversation

My boys are verbal after many, many hours of speech and ABA therapy,  but I would not consider them conversationalists. My 5-year-old will answer simple questions and may even tell you about something that is important to him. He may tell you the ages of all his family members or how many minutes he has until bedtime, but he will not take the time to answer your questions about school. My 2-year-old will say words, but in a way that labels the world around him. He may point to the tree and say “tree,” he will say cookie when he spots a treat across the table, but please don’t ask him what he got for Christmas. If it is not in his eyesight, he is not interested in talking about it.

Don’t expect my kids to eat

My boys are physically healthy; they eat a variety of food from all the major food groups. They tell me when they are hungry and try a bite of everything that is offered to them. During the holidays, you may see my hand my son a cookie before dinner, or not bother to make a dinner plate for my other son. Making my sons sit down properly and eat a meal in a new setting, with loud noises, and a million sparkly and shiny things to look at is probably not going to happen. I will also let you in a little secret: I probably fed them before I came over.

Don’t expect a long goodbye

With two boys on the spectrum, things can go from great to catastrophic in a matter of minutes. Transitions are always the hardest parts of our days.  I may see the meltdown coming or it may start when I start my goodbyes. After a long day of loud noises, visual stimulation, physical play and a new setting, my boys may not show it, but they are overwhelmed. The let down of the day will happen, and sometimes a crash will take place.

Sometimes, if I am at the top of my game, I’ll say my thank yous and dole out my hugs before I tell the boys we are leaving. Once we do that, my husband and I look at each other and acknowledge that it is “time to pull the Band-Aid,” (yes, we actually call it that) and get out of there. Please do not be offended if we leave in a hurry. I assure you it is nothing to do with you, it’s about meeting the needs of our children.

Don’t hand me anything more to carry

While we are trying to get out the door with our two boys and our other three children, we will be carrying coats, presents, food trays, mittens and a toy one of my sons is obsessed with at the moment. I guarantee I will forget something at your home; a loose mitten, a sweater, a pacifier will certainly be a parting gift. Please do not try to make me wait while you pack up food for me. Please don’t take one of my children with you to find one last treasure they need for the car ride home.  I am already sweating and trying to fight the superhuman strength my toddler somehow musters up everytime I zip his coat. I still have images of beautifully made Christmas cookies tumbling into the snowy driveway while I tried to wrestle my son into his car seat. Please know I won’t be offended if I leave your home “empty-handed.” Trust me, my hands are full.

Don’t compare our children

I know you are trying to be nice when you tell me that your son did not talk until he was 3 or how your adorable daughter can really throw quite the tantrum at home. I know you are trying to make me feel less alone and less different. Please don’t tell me that your child may be “a little autistic” too as you explain their typical behavior. Please don’t make your children be extra nice to my children or tolerate behavior that is not appropriate. My boys are sometimes difficult to play with and can be quite rigid in how they interact. Encourage your children to treat my boys with respect and manners, but they don’t need to break their boundaries to be accommodating.

Don’t dull the holiday sparkle for me

Don’t be afraid to talk to me about your “normal” life and brag about your children. Continue to encourage your child to show off the new song they can sing or the dance moves they just learned. It does not remind me that my children are different, it makes me happy for you. I accept and love my children as they are, just as you do with yours.

Accept us as we are

There is nothing more important to me than family. My extended family with their loud, crowded, over-the-top celebrations are the source of some of my best memories. My family has also taught me there is always room for one more at the table. We are all-inclusive, come as you are and bring a friend with you, kind of people. I promise to embrace the joy, chaos and warmth of the holidays, including if my child is covering his ears at the table or lining up Christmas cookies across the floor. My boys have taught me how to completely accept and love people for exactly who they are — and when all the celebrations are said and done, that is my holiday wish for all.

Getty image by Romrodinka.

Originally published: November 10, 2019
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