How Our Holidays Have Changed Since My Son's Autism Diagnosis
“I want a roll,” my son said through clenched teeth, anxiously staring at all the food laid out on the table.
“Let’s try some turkey too…just a little,” I coaxed, feeling embarrassed that my sister had worked all day long, making a huge Thanksgiving meal for us, and my son was about to meltdown over there not being “anything to eat.”
“No,” he said firmly. “A roll. And then I will have some pie.”
Another member of my family tried to help. “You can’t have pie unless you have something to eat. This is all wonderful food. Eat some of it.”
I could see the pressure getting to him. The other children were joyfully making tons of noise. The adults were laughing and having fun. It was warm and loud, but it was a nightmare for my son.
He clenched his fists. I got him a roll and tried to coax him to his chair. He kicked the chair and refused to sit down. My family stared at me and the message was clear.
Are you going to let him behave like that?
My son happily opened his Christmas presents. He was excited to see the new chemistry set that was first on his list. He loved the new books. He was smiling and joyful. I took a ton of pictures and started to relax a bit. Maybe he would have a good day and enjoy himself.
Then it was time for us to leave for the airport.
I had been prepping him for days, knowing that the transition might be tough. “We will open our presents, have Christmas tree-shaped pancakes and then we get to go fly to have another Christmas with Auntie and Grammie.” All week long he had nodded his head in agreement.
But when the time came, he snapped. “No,” he yelled and started banging his head with the iPad.
I moved towards him to try and help. He took one of his gifts and smashed it into pieces. My husband yelled. “That was brand new. Some children don’t get anything for Christmas, and you’re breaking your toys before you even play with them?”
My son began wildly flailing, crying, trying to find anything to break or to hurt. He scratched his arms and his face. He scratched my arms and my face. We sobbed.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas I just described were the last ones we celebrated before learning my son has high-functioning autism. To me, they are a blur of stress, sadness, anger and fear. I think they may also be for my sweet boy.
The holidays are a very stressful time for my family. Take my son with his with massive sensory issues and rigid thinking and then add holiday travel, sleeping in unfamiliar places, the noise of a large family all crowded into one space, new foods, no routine, the anxiety of wanting to open presents, the anxiety of all of the presents now being opened and the sheer exhaustion of not sleeping well and not eating well. Put it all together and what you get is a tough season for my son. And, if I’m honest, for me, too.
For a long time, I was bitter. I love traditions. I love Christmas and Baby Jesus. I love cookies with kid decorations and the smell of Christmas trees. I love baking pies for Thanksgiving and eating my sister’s ridiculously good turkey. It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. And yet for many years in our family, it was one of the worst.
After finally getting his diagnosis and learning more about my son’s needs, we have taken a much different approach to celebrating the holidays. We have found small changes have made a significant difference. Here are three ways we are learning to enjoy the season, while accommodating my son’s needs:
1. Food doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
So much of Thanksgiving and Christmas involves food. New foods, savory foods and foods we don’t eat except during this season. Food is one of my favorite parts of the holidays but not so much for my son. I have learned to just let him eat what he wants during celebrations. The reality of dealing with the noise and unfamiliarity is enough of a challenge for him. I have found there is no need to fight a food battle when he’s completely overwhelmed. If he just wants a roll and some pie, I might ask him if he wants me to grab him a slice of cheese to go along with it. No matter what, I encourage him to just eat what he can, and then I can enjoy my own meal.
I also have chosen two traditions that he can count on each year that revolve around food. One is cookie baking and decorating, and the other is pancakes shaped like Christmas trees on Christmas morning. He loves both and so do I. Anything beyond that is purely optional, and I don’t push.
2. Surprises aren’t always good.
I know this is going to sound like sacrilege to many of you, but my son knows in advance what most of his presents will be for Christmas. We found the anxiety of not knowing what presents he would or would not get defeated the purpose of giving him presents in the first place. One year, he was so anxious about it that he was having daily meltdowns — and there was still a week to go before Christmas morning.
Letting him know the main gifts he will receive in advance helps him look forward to the day instead of stressing over it. I still get him little unknown treats for his stocking, and he has no idea what he will receive from other members of our family, so there is still a little bit of surprise.
3. Less is more.
When I say less, I mean a lot less. Less of everything. Less decorations, less travel, less parties, less presents, less candy, less family, less traditions, less mess. Less really has proven to be more for our family.
We are now super intentional about how we celebrate. For us, it means having only a handful of traditions, like allowing him to pick out a new snow globe each year and spaghetti (one of his only tried and true meals) on Christmas Eve. It means seeing family but for shorter periods of time and with a quiet space always available. Most importantly, the holidays have become more about talking about why we celebrate and the importance of family and less about the celebrations themselves.
Simplifying our holidays has not only helped my son, it has also helped all of us stay grounded in the reason we do any of this in the first place.
Thanksgiving is about gratitude.
I believe Christmas is about Jesus.
Anything beyond that is optional, not just for my son, but for us all.
Follow this journey on Not the Former Things.
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