Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Holidays and Autism

We have come a long way from Tristan hiding under the table at holiday parties (or any gathering more than just his immediate family) and grabbing guest’s legs as they entered his space. To an onlooker Tristan’s behavior might have seemed childish and fun, but not to me I saw years of parties with Tristan hiding. So like anything else in Tristan’s world we began teaching him how to behave appropriately at a party, not that we expected a chatty preschooler who stood-up and sang his favorite tune, but we needed him not to run under the table and pull down the tablecloth to hide behind.

Any party can be stressful for children with ASD, but I think the holidays offer a whole new bag of surprises. Expectations are high, change is present, and the anxiety (good or bad) can bring Tristan tumbling down. During the holidays our worlds are whipped up on high-speed — think of all the change that just happens at home.

We celebrate Christmas, so a tree moves in and just as Tristan is getting adjusted to the smell, the space it takes up, the lights, and all the decorations, the tree is discarded in the compost pile. Then anxiety of the actual day of Christmas, everyday until Christmas I will be asked, “Is it Christmas, today?” Then all the preparation— the tree, the cooking, the parties, comes to a halt and people invade our home to enjoy our yearly Christmas day open house.

Now Tristan has learned to entertain our guests instead of hiding, but has opportunities to escape if needed. Tristan might even give a holiday smooch, if you are a patient.

Tips to making your holiday the best ever:

  • Teach your child the appropriate way to act at a party. You might begin slowly with the child sitting on your lap or in a body sock, but being with the crowd. Then work towards interacting with the party-goers — my favorite trick to getting Tristan to be social at a party is to give him a job like handing out drinks or passing around appetizers.

  • Write a social story about the party or about the holiday, so the child knows what to expect.

  • Give a movie break, if you see anxiety level rising.

  • Make a holiday calendar to mark special events like going to buy a Christmas tree or school play or party. Don’t forget to mark when the tree is leaving the house.

  • Keep everything simple and then it will be less overwhelming for everyone.

  • Relax, if you are stressed likely your child will be stressed, so kick back and enjoy your time with your family and friends.