This Christmas miracle is based on my observation and work with adult patients diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a true story about one of the clients that I worked with.
A Christmas party? I don’t know about this.
That sounds like so much fun! I can’t wait!
I want to go! And I’ll bring a video I made back in high school, and everyone will love it. Will there be a DVD player? It’s important to me you see it because then you’ll understand why I get so excited and having fun.
As I fielded responses to our announcement of our client Christmas party, I was shocked by the varied reactions I received from patients. I had just started working at an organization where we worked with young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and I was still learning the nuances that they don’t teach you in school.
This Christmas party was an annual event, and something I assumed would be a positive experience for all the clients, after all, didn’t everyone love a party?!
In particular, I focused on one woman, Danielle. She was relatively new to the organization and presented with many things that were interrupting her goals to live independently. She was diagnosed with ASD as well as speech and emotional difficulties which made the thought of an organized social event terrifying, even though she was interested in coming. Her anxiety hit a chord with me, reminding me why I do what I do and how important it is to meet someone where they are and walk with them towards their goal.
We discussed the things that were attractive to her in going as well as the things that held her back. The not knowing who all was going to be there, being across town, late at night and other things were all negatives for her. We also focused on the positives she would receive by going to the party. Such as the ability to build more social connections, getting to talk with people she already knew and the possibility of having fun. I encouraged her to go, and we discussed appropriate coping techniques for anticipated difficulties, but she left her last session before the party still unsure if she would be attending.
The day of the party I was running around, making sure things were set up appropriately, and all accommodations were in place. We had a few rooms open, allowing the space for those who wanted to socialize, and the ones that needed some quiet space to decompress. I was excitedly marking attendance and working at getting all the people settled in as they arrived, some faces lit up with excitement, some with timid features, but all looking around and taking in the expanse of what we had put together for them.
To my surprise and excitement, Danielle walked in, clutching her bag nervously, but still there. I was ecstatic that she had made this huge step and recognized that no matter what happened that evening, the mere act of her coming was a success.
Upon arriving at the party, Danielle stuck to the side of the room, clinging to the walls and holding onto her bag tightly, running her hands up and down over the straps to calm her. I prompted her when it was ok to get food and where she could sit. She eventually got her food and sat down at a corner table, eyes darting around nervously trying to take in all the people around her.
I quietly encouraged another client to sit with her and watched from a distance as I saw the power of peer influence and support. As staff members, we provide needed instruction and support, but nothing can replace the natural learning and camaraderie of peer interaction.
After dinner, everyone split up into groups, some watching a movie, some organizing a complicated game, and some sitting around nervously at the tables waiting for direction on what to do.
Knowing many of the clients enjoyed music, I suggested we get together a singing group for those who weren’t interested in the movie or the game. Everyone quickly decided Disney music was a better choice than Christmas music and thus the karaoke time commenced.
Laughter, uncontrollable giggling, and full acting out of the movie scenes began to take over the front office space we were using, and everyone was caught up in having a good time and enjoying the light-hearted music playing over the speakers. Danielle watched from a distance, nervously laughing sometimes, always denying invites from me to join, but eyes never leaving the group of her peers singing and enjoying themselves.
Song after song went on, laughter and excitement continued and I watched with excitement as I saw Danielle gradually walk closer to the group and start to move her mouth along with the words. I respected her space and process, not giving more than a natural encouraging smile and nod of my head, but inwardly bouncing up and down at the progress she made.
Finally, one of the girls next to me asked Danielle what song she would like to sing next, and she answered! She requested a specific song and proceeded to sing with gusto, all speech and emotional difficulties disappearing under the upbeat melody. I watched in astonishment as the reserved girl who had been shaking with nerves in my office just a couple days before disappeared into an excited, happy woman in front of me, surrounded by friends. This continued for several more songs, eventually dissolving into exhausted piles of people lying on couches and the floor, saying with smiles that their stomachs hurt from laughing so hard.
Danielle left that evening with a smile and positive spirit. We would still struggle with social situations over the next few years working together, but that night was a step in the right direction.
Christmas miracles do happen with a lot of work if you work with or live with someone with ASD. It’s all about the respecting the growth process and about allowing the organic nature of friendships and independence to balance out into happy and joyous memories. Remember, sometimes autonomy is important and we need to take a step back to give our friends and family we care for the space they need to grow decision-making skills.
With this real Christmas miracle, we hope that all of you that are families with ASD have a bright and merry holiday season and that all you have a Christmas miracles come true.
Alyssa R. Webb-McCune is a graduate student at Sam Houston State University in their Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program and works at Including Kids as a Focused Intervention Specialist. She has five years of experience working with students with disabilities and two years of experience working with adults with autism. She is active in research and focused on developing new ways to support clients in reaching their highest level of success.