Autism and the Holidays

My advice to parents of younger children with autism is to just go with it and not try to make a picture perfect holiday. Your family is unique and whatever way you can make it fun and happy for all of you is the right way.
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I am not a big fan of Christmas. I used to get into it like everyone else but autism changed all that. My son, Ben, has come a long way and no longer suffers to the extent he did when he was younger but it is still a stressful time for us all.

Here are a few highlights of how it affects us:

When he was younger, the decorations upset him because suddenly our house was different and he did not understand why. Bright lights and sparkly ornaments are great unless your sensory system cannot process all this activity and it sends you into a head-banging frenzy just to cope with the feelings in your head.

Parties at school meant a change in routine and sensory overload. Often, he had to miss them to find a quiet place away from the madness. Further "strange child" syndrome with his peers. Who doesn't like Christmas parties?

Forget about going to church for pageants and other festivities. We were told if we wanted to have Ben in the nursery or Sunday School classes, we would need to stay with him and, hey, while we were there why didn't we just run the class for all the disabled children? Um, no thanks. Exit church.

Presents cannot be put under the tree until the last-minute because they send Ben into an obsessive-compulsive state. One of the first Christmas' my new husband spent with us was a particularly bad year. Ben sat under the tree, holding his presents, and rocked back and forth unable to endure the wait. He was 11-years-old. It was physically painful for him to not be able to open the presents and just as painful to watch.

For a gazillion years, Ben had hamburgers and french fries on Christmas Day because he could not handle having to eat the strange "holiday" food. He would hover in the kitchen asking "What is it made of?" "Have I ever had that before?" "What if I don't like it?" "What does it feel like?" Now, thankfully, he will eat anything as long as there is ketchup nearby but it was a long time before he got to this point.

And then there's the presents...

Ben starts making his Christmas list in August because that is the time video game manufacturers start promoting the new games that will be out for the season.

Ben spends countless hours researching which games he will put on his list. He is given a budget and agonizes over how to best allocate the funds for maximum enjoyment. He also keeps track of release dates so I will have sufficient time to get to the store and purchase said games in time to "surprise" him on Christmas morning. He gives me detailed instructions of how to plan my day on the release date so I will be sure to procure the object of his obsession. Ben worries I will forget so he reminds me DAILY of his plan.

He drives me nuts.

We start this process in August. That is a quarter of the year we deal with Ben's obsessiveness over Christmas presents. I am numb to talk about video games and get a glazed over look on my face when he brings it up. I allow him to talk to me about presents two times a day because I know he needs to express himself. After that, he has to write it down in journal and is allowed to bring up things he's written down during his allotted time. At this rate, he needs 10 years of chats to cover all his thoughts.

I feel guilty about not wanting to hear Ben talk about video games. I waited six years before he said "Mama" for the first time and every word he speaks now is truly a miracle to me. I know I am the one person he can tell exactly what's on his mind no matter how random or silly it seems. This is a role I take very seriously.

But, dammit, I am so tired of video games by the time Christmas finally does come, I am actually overjoyed when he immediately scoops up his gifts and heads off to his room to place them in just the right place which must never, ever be moved, dusted, or otherwise tampered with.

I'm free for a day or so when he'll tell he has something he needs to talk about...

His birthday list.

The boy's birthday is in June but, I kid you not, on December 26th or 27th he'll casually breeze into the room (because he knows I am going to blow but he cannot stop himself) and announce he has his birthday list ready and the whole process begins again.

And that is why I am not a fan of Christmas. We've tried over the years to make it as normal as possible for our neuro-typical daughter but she has suffered anxiety over what kind of drama would present itself on Christmas morning. It has been hard on us all and we've adjusted the best we can.

My advice to parents of younger children with autism is to just go with it and not try to make a picture perfect holiday. Your family is unique and whatever way you can make it fun and happy for all of you is the right way.

Happy Holidays! I hope we all make it through with our sanity intact.

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