Dear Parents of children “with” Asperger’s/autism,
I realize that a lot of us blog-writers speak mostly to our fellow Asperger’s/autistic adult community, and many others have done a better job of including you in our conversations than I have (and on the flip-side, some of us don’t speak much to you at all, which I’m sure isn’t anything against you, nor is it a shortcoming of theirs), but I would like to, so I’m going to take the opportunity to do more of that now.
Parenting itself is…interesting. It’s a 24/7 job, the type in which you don’t get to clock in or out. Little beings, growing beings with expanding minds, full vitality, and endless curiosity but NO experience, depend on you for guidance and survival. There’s always a meal to prepare, a play-date to meet, or an owie to kiss.
Holidays themselves are…interesting, too. They’re filled with joy, excitement, anticipation, and expectations. They’re filled with extra people, extra sounds, extra smells, extra tastes–lots of “extras”. These “fillings” can tax the energy limits of practically anyone, with their added running around, longer to-do lists, and heavier energy requirements.
Now, put those two together. Parenting + Holidays (especially Christmas, the zenith of the year, the final big-bash party–complete with: PRESENTS!!)
And now, let’s add a twist: one (or more) of your children turns out to be on the autism spectrum. That’s not a bad thing–at all. It just makes things a little more…interesting.
Before I go much further, I should add some disclaimers…
First, in the grand scheme of things, I still consider myself relatively new to the entire concept of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. (Sure, I’ve certainly heard the terms before, and seen the videos and media portrayals of autistic children having meltdowns and all that, but I hadn’t been exposed to too much beyond that before realizing that I’m on the spectrum myself.)
Second, I don’t actually have any children of my own. That’s by both necessity (some of the necessary anatomy is no longer with me) and by choice (although not because I hate kids, because actually, I really like them). The fact that I’m without children might knock a few points off, but please know that I have a ton of childcare experience and a very lively imagination, so I can at least empathize more than some may realize. 🙂
Third, this post may be the most suitable for beginners – i.e., parents whose children are fairly recently diagnosed as Aspergian/autistic. Parents for whom this Christmas is not their first rodeo might still get some benefit or insight, or the information may be something they already knew. I’ll do my best 🙂
- If you’re a parent of a newly-diagnosed child, this post is for you.
- If you’re the parent of a child diagnosed a long time ago, this post is still for you.
- If you’re the parent of a now-adult child who realizes after the fact that they’re on the spectrum, this post is probably still for you.
- If you’re the adult diagnosed autistic person, this post is for you, too.
- If you’re a professional who works with autistic children or adults in any way, this post is for you as well.
So…where were we? Ahhh, yes. Children + Holidays/Christmas + Autism Spectrum.
Since being an autistic adult means that I was once an autistic child, this means that I might be able to “shed some light” “from the other side” (at least, one example, since I’m only one person and we’re all different). I write this post with a sharing/giving vibe, only hoping to help, hoping to provide perhaps a starting point or mental springboard from which to jump into excellent ideas and survival skills of your own, as you see fit.
(Note: it’s not the autism itself that needs “surviving”; it’s the autistic child–and their parents–trying to make it through the festivities in one piece.) 🙂
My parents and I had no–and I mean ZERO–idea that I was an Aspie, so that added a significant wrinkle to our situation. In my family, there were equal amounts of joy and stress surrounding the holidays, and there was a profound surplus of each. That had a yin-yang effect on my psyche during Christmastime. Maybe I can spare another child that yo-yo, and reach out to offer a bit of a lifeline for parents, too. (I’m pretty sure my parents would have appreciated a “decoder manual” for me LOL). So, here are a few ideas that came to my mind about how to make that theoretical Inner Peace more of a reality.
Idea #1 – Letting Kids Be Kids
I’m not of the school of thought that insists that “Christmas is for kids”, because I think Christmas (and any other holiday) is for anyone and everyone. During this time, there’s so much excitement that it can be tough to contain it, to hold it in. Kids’ brains (of any neurotype) haven’t fully developed the region of the brain responsible for our inhibitions, so kids are naturally mostly uninhibited. Thus, it’s good to let them run around a little wild at times, as long as they can do so safely. I would’ve liked a designated area to do whatever I wanted with my cousins, to really let my hair down and let freedom ring. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being a semi-strict parent – in fact, if you are, good for you! Kids do need boundaries. It helps them feel secure. But it might help calm their stress levels to relax them just a bit for special occasions.
Idea #2 – Setting Clear Expectations
It IS indeed healthy to have certain expectations regarding behavior, and to differentiate clearly between what type of behavior is acceptable and what is unacceptable. It’s also best to spell these expectations out very clearly, before the excitement starts to ramp up. Once the excitement gains momentum, our processing powers often disintegrate into the ether. Auditory processing might be a challenge, which means that in addition to explaining these expectations verbally, it might be good to write them down or draw pictures (depending on your child’s age and natural inclinations), too. Role-playing before the event might be helpful, too. Again, it depends.
Idea #3 – Enforcing Limits Consistently
In my own family, we kids often went way past the acceptable limits (because we didn’t know where they were) until suddenly my father snapped at us harshly. Instead, I would have preferred some gentle warnings first, before we got too close to the edge. A bonus might have been to make it more fun/lighthearted by coming up with “code words” or a little “secret language” that only you and your child know, which you can use to send messages to let them know that they’re getting close to the line or they’re on thin ice before they actually cross that line into Unacceptable Behavior Territory.
Idea #4 – Understanding Misbehavior
Autistic children who misbehave usually don’t do so with malintent. We generally don’t try to call attention to ourselves, even as children. But with so many people around, in one place at one time, we may get antsy, irritable, obstinate, or defiant. Please understand that it’s not that we’re behaving badly. It’s usually not willful disobedience. In fact, this is a joyous time and we’re trying to be on our best behavior. We’re not simply “acting up” or defying you or acting stubborn on purpose, to make anyone mad or create a scene (even though it may sure look like we’re trying to do exactly that!) Rather, we’re probably actually getting overwhelmed and may not realize it or have the words to express it. We may need a simple recipe of recognition, understanding. A simple “let’s go into a quiet room and play” or “let’s go outside and take some deep breaths” (and drink some water) might be good strategies. I encourage all parents to be on their children’s side, and speak up for us when we don’t know how to speak up for what we want or need.
Idea #5 – Palatable Clothing/Attire
It’s OK to want your children to be dressed rather nicely (it’s a special occasion, after all), but I would have preferred my parents to keep in mind that my sister and I were going to be playing with our cousins, who we were excited to see, and who we only got to see a few times a year, and that play could get a little…energetic. We were also going to be dabbling in plenty of baked sweets and finger foods, which can get messy. Christmas may not be the time or place to wear one’s absolute best clothing.
Idea #6 – Eat Plenty of Healthy Food, Too, and Don’t Deviate From Special Diets (!)
Christmas is a time in which different people will be preparing foods of different tastes, textures, and flavor combinations than we might be used to. If we don’t want to try something, please don’t make us do it. Try as I might, I couldn’t stand peas, lima beans, oranges, or mashed potatoes…at all. Please try not to criticize; chances are, we have extra-vivid tastebuds and all-too-responsive gag reflexes, which means that we taste things stronger and gag on things easier. We’re often pretty darn sensitive to tastes and textures.
A lot of us have dietary restrictions due to reactivities to certain ingredients. If there’s an ingredient you know we can’t have, please don’t make us eat it “just this once” or “just a bite” to appease Grandma or an aunt. If we’re going to feel crummy for hours or days afterward, it’s not worth that bite. I recommend being as vigilant as possible to make sure we don’t accidentally dish up something that contains any allergens/reactive ingredients (with so many unfamiliar foods, we might not know or think to ask).
We may also see those platters of cookies, cakes, brownies, pies, and other goodies, and we are overcome with desire to pig out on the sugary goodness. Yeah, that’s not such a good thing. Tummy aches, head colds, and sugar rushes followed by crashes are almost guaranteed.
Idea #7 – Gift Etiquette
Aspie/autistic people will often spend our lives trying to figure out the right etiquette. We’ll struggle with finding the right words to say at the right times, with the right facial expressions or gestures. Many of us struggle with this well into adulthood. It’s not that we’re unintelligent or rude, and it’s not that you’re a poor parent. It just happens. My only advice is to teach what you can, in a gentle, nurturing, and encouraging way. Role-playing might come in handy here, too, such as practicing giving and receiving gifts.
Sending thank-you notes can be another challenge; even at age 39, although I’m totally grateful (and always have been) for the gifts I receive, I’m horrible about sending thank-you cards. It’s not that I don’t care. I really do. I’m really thankful, and really touched. I really do appreciate the effort and the expense of getting me the gift. I love it more than I can say. But, well, thank-you notes pose the same challenges to me as Christmas cards themselves, so if I’m lucky, I might get them mailed off by the end of April. And to be clear, my mom was an excellent mother who instilled traditional etiquette into her kids. I’m also not an ungrateful loser. It’s just a combination of This Is Outside My Routine and Executive Function Issues.
Well, there you have it. Hopefully this helps/helped someone out there, making Christmas/other holidays just a bit Merrier–for both Asperger’s/autistic children AND their parents!
Bravo to the rockin’ parents out there! ❤