Christopher C. Gagliardi
Around the Christmas season, just after I was born, my mother took me to New York City to see the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center. I was captivated by the lights and much more. Unfortunately, I didn’t go back to see the tree with mom for a while.
To be honest, I love any form of light, especially colorful ones. Yet at the time, my mother didn’t understand why I reacted in such a matter, back before the word “autism” was inserted into the social consciousness. Eventually, she discovered that I was fixated on the flashing lights and things that turned.
The holidays made me out of sorts, especially when I was away during the holidays from school, it caused me to be disconnected. Not to mention, I was allergic to pine trees, which is why we never had a real Christmas Tree in our home, for it would make me sick. On top of all that, we never got to go to a holiday party, let alone a Christmas party because I was overstimulated at the time.
For every person who is born with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families, the transitioning point from everyday life to family gatherings for holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, can be a nightmare, especially those who are young and on the spectrum. It all goes back to the point of transition.
In fact, according to an article in Healthline magazine titled “A Holiday Survival Guide for Parents with Autistic Children,” Dr. Adam Soffrin states, “Children on the spectrum tend to thrive on consistency and routine, both of which can get tossed out the window when the holiday season arrives.” There are several key points that can cause a child or young adult on the spectrum to become… difficult.
In an article from Psychology Today, Chantal Siclie-Kira, who is also the author of “What is autism? Understanding Life with Autism or Asperger’s”, points out 6 panic prone areas:
- The stores are full of noise, lights, and lots of people and winter holiday music that can be very overwhelming for those who have sensory processing challenges (a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses.)
- Social Requirements such as relatives wanting a hug or a kiss that can feel painful.
- Holiday dinners where they are expected to try foods or sit for long periods of time with so many people and so much commotion.
- Many children are mesmerized by the colors and textures of the ribbon and wrapping paper and don’t open the present but get engrossed and play with the paper, which is diversified. (*I should point something out about number 4 in particular, when a person of the family or friend of the family make the effort to get something for the child, please ask the caretaker this question: “What is the best thing that I can get for him or her to connect with who they are?” For example, people bought me toys to play with. But they were nothing that I was interested in, so they sat, I never played with the matchbox cars until I was a bit older which I had so many, I couldn’t figure it out.)
- They might not understand personal space or have any safety notions so they may run around the home or overstimulated and pick up something breakable.
- The parents have to deal with the relatives’ judgemental attitude that “this child has to be disciplined,” not realizing that the child cannot help it, and that discipline is NOT helpful when it comes to sensory overload and high anxiety.
Yet the best part of my story is that I got to be a part of the holidays, especially Christmas…gradually. One of the first things that my mom, realized after I spent 2 days at my father’s for Christmas. I came home undone and unfocused, so my mom made sure that everything was simple, the way I left is the same way I came home to, no lights, or Christmas tree, etc. As the years passed, it became easier for me to come home and refocus from my father’s. When I was around 12 years of age, my mother started with one set of lights in one part of the home, which was the living room. As I got older, more lights were added to other parts of the house for the holidays which was to make me more aware of it. The next thing my mom did was to take me to places where parties were going to be held as I got older.
Thanks to my mom’s patience and insight, now I have the fun of putting holiday lights up every holiday after cleaning the windows, and I do not mind it at all; in fact, I love it, not because my mother cannot do it for me, but I can do it for her.
To conclude this article, here are tips that families who have children and young adults on the Autism spectrum CAN INDEED DO to make the holiday season a bit brighter and happier. From the article written by Adam Soffrin in Healthline magazine you can:
1) Create a schedule, and stick to it – Since routines are important to kids on the autism spectrum, try to maintain as much consistency as possible. If your idea of a winter break involves making plans while on the go, you may find that your child has a very different opinion. That is not to say that relaxation can’t be part of your vacation, but try your best to maintain a set daily routine. Keeping a consistent schedule (i.e. wakeups, bedtimes and mealtimes), will ensure the child’s days remain structured.
Also, regarding travel during the holidays with someone who is on the spectrum, Dr. Soffrin said in the same article: “If you have any travel or special activities planned, keep a visual calendar accessible so your child knows when and where these will be happening. It’s also helpful to provide plenty of reminders to your child regarding any variations in schedule (“Remember, on Thursday we will be driving to see Grandma and Grandpa…”) to be sure he or she is primed for change.”
2) SHOP SMART! – Shopping with a child on the spectrum can create its own set of specific challenges. Stores can be high-stimulation environments, especially around the holidays. Lights, music, decorations and crowds can all be unpleasant, if not downright overwhelming for a child with any sort of sensory processing issues. Remember that children on the spectrum may perceive sound, light, and crowds differently than you do.
Some stores offer “quiet shopping hours” for families of children who are on the spectrum such as Target. If you must bring your child to the store, be prepared with snacks, headphones or noise-canceling earphones, and a preferred toy or game to keep the youngsters engaged while you’re shopping.
3) Toys, toys, toys! – Holidays shopping can be a thrill to some, but the idea of buying gifts for others may not be an easy concept to explain to a child on the spectrum. A child may see toys or food that they want and exhibit some aggressive behaviors like screaming or crying in order to get access to them. While it may seem easier to give in and get the item, buying children gifts after they exhibit these problem behaviors reinforces the idea that those behaviors are the way to get what they want. In which case, get ready for your kid to use the same method in the future.
Instead, try to ignore such behaviors and only provide the reinforcement and attention when your child will get access to a preferred toy, game, food or activity after the shopping is done. Always remember the “first/then” rule: “First you complete the non-preferred activity, then you get what you want.” This is known as the Premack Principle, or more commonly, the “grandmother rule” (“First eat your dinner, then you get dessert.”)
These are just some of the rules that can help make the holidays for families of those who are on the spectrum easier, happier and brighter and also have the peace of mind knowing that by learning some of the tips that are involved, that person can enjoy the holidays with simplicity.
If you have a special needs child, especially one who is on the spectrum, with the right tools and the right amount of patience it is possible to help them build tolerance for this hectic, spontaneous time over the years. Eventually, this will encourage holidays with the whole family together, which is one of the goals in the age of The Autistic American.