One Parent’s Way of Avoiding Crises at Thanksgiving and Christmas

Holidays are stressful for everyone regardless of how much joy they bring. The challenges that come with raising a child on the autism spectrum −especially with other siblings − only compound this stress. As an experienced mother of an adult with autism and two other typically-developing children, I have learned many strategies through trial and error and offer these tips to other parentsof ASD children in hopes of lessening the stress of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

First, do not assume that all of the glorious dishes you have prepared for your holiday parties will be accepted by your ASD child. It is best to also prepare this child’s beloved food. This will alleviate any tantrums about the food. In our son’s case, the 30-second, microwaved hot dog with grape jelly is always a hit. Also, if your child loves one of the special items of the holidays like pumpkin pie, make sure to purchase and prepare three times as much as you may think you need. Our son often had pumpkin pie for breakfast the next morning as well as three pieces the night before. He never considered his siblings desires and, thus, never left any pieces for them. You can only imagine the frustration when this was discovered. If your ASD child experiences gas as a result of eating particular foods, do NOT serve them during the holidays. Our gaseous son can ruin a dinner with his odor. He has no restraint and does not hold the gas in or leave the room. Thus, eliminate the problem by eliminating the food causing it.

Presents are a temptation for any child. So, consider an impulsive child on the spectrum at Christmas time. One year, our son was so excited about the presents under the tree that he opened his presents plus his brothers’ presents early, ruining Christmas for his younger brother. For a few years after this Christmas, the presents were not placed under the tree until all the children were in bed on Christmas Eve.

When shopping, temptations are even greater at this time for an impulsive ASD child to take things from stores or get distracted and wander off, especially since you are also distracted trying to accomplish so much in such little time. I would recommend you make arrangements for your ASD child to stay at home.  The stress of all of the crowds may be too much for your child or adult. If you should have to venture out with your child, make plans of where you are going, review these plans with your child, check all clothing pockets before leaving the stores (our son hoarded, and this often led him to take things), and carry snacks.

In many areas of the world, holidays areaccompanied by snow. It took me a long time toadjust to the fact that our son was less affected by the cold than I was. I would always want to bind him up in lots of warm clothing, or I stopped him from doing his favorite thing (bullwhipping) because of the weather. Over time, I learned that it really did not matter what the weather was for him to be out and whip unless it was lightening. If it was sprinkling, damp, cold, hot, windy or snowing, he truly still wanted to whip. So, I learned to let go of some of my parental anxiety and allow him to go outside. I also learned to ignore my desire to tell himto remove his leather jacket when the temperature was 95 degrees or to wear a heavier coat if it was 35 degrees. He ultimately figured out for himself what was comfortable, and I learned to let go of my expectations.

One of the most frustrating things for our other two children was that their ASD brother never wanted to get out of bed early on Christmas or Easter morning. He was always too tired. This would aggravate the other two children, especially the youngest one, to the point of crying. Well, that was a horrible way to start Christmas or Easter day. So, what todo? Mostly you must lay down the ground rules early. Prompt your child several days before that they will be getting up early and that it is not an option to stay in bed. Consider making an agreement that they can open one gift on Christmas Eve as a reward for agreeing to get up Christmas morning. Most importantly, make sure that your ASD child goes to bed early on Christmas Eve. This may require you to start an early bedtime and early wakeup schedule a few days before the final day to get the child’s schedule shifted.

Respite during the holidays is a must. If you have the opportunity to have your ASD child stay with family or friends for a few days to provide relief to the rest of the family as well as the child, then allow your ASD child to go. Breaking up the long days of holidaytime is imperative to the health of the entirefamily. We have learned that about 3 to 5continuous days is the limit of togethernessfor our family at this time (our ASD son is 19).So, when he comes home from school for2 weeks, I have already made arrangementsfor this respite care. Whether funded withpublic or private dollars, respite is a significantnecessity to the sanity of your family.

One of the greatest lessons to learn asa parent of an ASD child is to adjust your expectations.  The way your mother raised you or the way you raise your typically developing children is NOT the way you will raise your ASD child. You must be willingto adjust all typical parenting practices and develop new skills and expectations. It IS okay to have a hot dog for breakfast, to sleep in your dirty blue jeans, to dig a hole in your yard just for the sake of digging, to tell nonsensical stories, to consider a rock to have significance, to not wear a hat in the snow, to eat three apples at one time, to eat a whole can of cranberry sauce and cherry pie filling, and to crack a bullwhip all day. This is our son, and we have come to accept these quirks about him; with this acceptance comes a greater level of internal peace.

Cathy Purple Cherry, AIA, LEED AP, is the principal of Purple Cherry Architects and the mother of an adult on the autism spectrum. Purposeful Architecture, a studio within her firm, focuses on environmental design for children and adults with challenges. As a special needs design architect, her firmworks on projects independently or teams with architecture firms nationally. Cathy provides aunique perspective and has the ability to translate the needs and mission of an organization into physical design.


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