When most people think of the holidays, they think of festivals, ornaments, and cookie exchanges. Most families are busy with thoughts of hanging up decorations, attending family gatherings, taking the kids to visit Santa Claus, and running down the stairs on Christmas morning to open presents. However, for a family with autism, this is usually not the case, and there are ways to create an inclusive community this holiday season.
When you have a family member with autism, whether it is mild or severe, parties are difficult because it means schedule changes and novel places, and at the ornament exchanges, you hope your child doesn’t focus on the shiny one too much! If you are going to a cookie party, you might be worrying about whether or not the cookies are gluten free and hanging decorations can just be a disaster because the stress your child feels from the chaos. During family gatherings, you hope there isn’t a meltdown and a visit to Santa? Well, you just keep your fingers crossed that your child will wait in the line and then actually sitting on his lap? And, then we have the excitement of Chrismas morning, where your child wants to open every present, and you let them because it is easier to keep the peace that way.
Obviously, this is not the same for every family with autism, but in my past 20+years experience, I can say that elements of these challenges apply to the majority of families who deal with autism on a daily basis. Parents of children with autism create a “new normal” slowly or quickly over the years. Those that have support and are part of an inclusive community can address some of the issues, but life for a family with autism can feel lonely any time, but especially over the holidays. The reality is that the neighbors stop sending invites because the family always declines, or because last year the child with autism got frustrated and threw the heirloom ornament, which broke into a thousand pieces.
So here is my holiday wish, if you know a family with autism– REACH OUT and ask how you can be a blessing this season, and make them a part of your inclusive community. Sometimes it is as simple as having gluten free cookies and using colored plates so the child with autism knows the rule that he can only eat off the “blue plate”. Maybe it’s offering to bring the food but hosting the party at their house, so the child is in their personal setting. Perhaps it is offering to babysit so the parents can go to the company holiday party this year.
The only way you will know how to help is to ask, and please make it genuine. Start small and build that supportive relationship. If you are that family with autism, let others in to help. NO one can or SHOULD do it on their own. I know it’s scary, but you need to start somewhere. It will be ok! If you are already creating these supports or letting others help you…I applaud you and keep it up! You are definitely in the minority, and we have a long way to go so the 1 in 68 and their families are all feeling like they are a part of something bigger….something better!
An inclusive community only works if everyone does their part. Let’s make this holiday season be the start of that goal!