The Holidays and Autism: How to Cope With the Noise

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Holidays are very stressful times of the year.  People spend money they don't have, cook tons of food that never gets eaten, and invite relatives over to their home they never want to see again.  Outside of the family dramas, stained carpets and floors, and the cleanup from all the gifts that will be returned after the party, there are some families that will have an added stress:  a child with autism that becomes overly stimulated and has meltdowns in the middle of the fish course or the turkey bowl. 

Please note that the above is a worse case scenario, and not necessarily the experience I have every year.  Yes, there is family drama, but no, it's not that bad.  I do want to see my relatives again...  sometime in the spring.  ^_^ 

Anyway, recently Reuters ran a public announcement from Autism Therapies, which I think is definitely worth mentioning:  coping with Autism and the Holidays.  Every holiday is different, and these seem to be focused around gift-giving holidays, but it works for all holidays in general from religious celebrations to reasons to get drunk and fall off the bar stool. 

Some of the suggestions made by Autism Therapies include:

  1. Decorating the house in gradual stages:  this gives the child with autism more time to adjust to the change in their surroundings, and as such more able to deal with those changes. 
  2. Avoid crowded malls and last minute shopping:  I think this is pretty much a no brainer.  As a rule I avoid crowded malls, and especially so with my autistic son.  But Holidays are a special time of year when the desire to get that special toy is stronger than the safety of other people.  Don't believe me?  I'm always shaking my head at the number of people who get trampled each year on Black Friday.  So, get your shopping done early, or get it done online.  Don't try to get it done at midnight on Christmas Eve, because it's just not going to be fair to your autistic child.
  3. Wait until just before the holiday to set out gifts:  Very important in general if you have a child who is curious, but doubly so if your autistic child is curious.  The gifts will be unwrapped faster than you can say "Don't do that!", which to an autistic child is an invitation anyway (they don't hear "n't" in the conjunction, just the "do").  My wife and I have found it helpful to put the tree in a corner, and put gifts under the back of the tree, where they are out of sight.  That may work too, or you can place them in your attic, garage, or other out of sight and reach place. 

Now, I know I've had a little bit of fun with this article with a lot of sarcasm thrown in.  This is mostly because of my feelings about the holidays and the concerns of commercialism and such.  Sometimes I think Scrooge had it right, if you throw in a bit of Tiny Tim. 

Anyway, the important thing is to keep your autistic child in mind.  Don't have massive parties in a small space, if you can help it.  Give your autistic child plenty of space to stretch out and run around.  Often times you may find that some holidays can be booked at a local church or other community center for a lot less than your cleaning bills will be, and your nerves will be less of a wreck. 

If you need to spend a lot of time preparing food or party favors, etc., make sure someone is watching your autistic child, and they KNOW they are watching the autistic child.  My wife and I always make sure we are looking at each other before we say, "You have him, right?"  That way we know the other person is aware of their responsibilities. 

Lastly, find some time during the party or dinner to have some alone time with your child.  I love this bit, because I get out of a lot of games, er, I mean I get to spend time with my son in a quiet corner.  Sometimes it's just sitting downstairs with my son next to me, letting him play a game on my iPod Touch while we watch or listen to a show.  Something like that can help your autistic child decompress and manage to take control of his senses.  He's focused, quiet, and not tearing anything apart.

Come to think of it...  these same rules can work for any family.  Hmm..  What a concept, having a non-stressful holiday.  What will they think of next?  ^_^ 

If any of you out there have some suggestions, feel free to post them!