Little kids with autism grow to be teens with autism. As is true with all adolescents, pressures both inside their bodies and in the social world can make them sometimes be irritable and reactive. Parents who live with them adapt and adopt new strategies for supporting their children over time. Relatives who see the kids intermittently often aren’t prepared for what it means to interact with a bigger kid who can’t be as easily directed or managed as when they were young. This is especially true if some of the teen’s behaviors are socially awkward or even potentially frightening.
Christmas is a time of year when many families have a big family gathering to celebrate. Parents of teens with autism and their extended family members are often torn: The teen is a loved member of the family who should be included, but will including him be disruptive to the family or even harmful to the teen?
If you are a parent of a teen with autism, you are already well aware of the need for preparation when you want or need to do something out of the ordinary. Christmas get-togethers with extended family are, of course, no exception. In fact, such gatherings may be exceptionally challenging if your family includes people who aren’t able to accommodate the special needs of your son or daughter.
This article is intended only as a friendly reminder of what to consider as you decide whether and how to participate in family get-togethers during this holiday season. You know your child: Choose and adapt these ideas according to your child’s very individual personality, development, and needs. You know yourself: Making a thoughtful decision can reduce any anxieties you may have about attending family events with your child.
First, review if this is a good year to visit the relatives. Yes, we live in a culture that celebrates family togetherness at Christmas. But the needs and development of the child are more important than living out a cultural fantasy. If the extended family is rowdy and will overwhelm him; if there are family members who have unrealistic expectations; if your child is already under stress due to physical and social changes that come with the teen years, maybe this is a year to celebrate the holidays more quietly.
Maybe, for example, it is wiser to visit the in-laws on a different day than everyone else. Maybe it would be a good idea to stay home, and Skype with everyone for a bit on the big day. To reduce your child’s stress, it may make sense to ask grandparents to visit you instead of going to their home.
If you do decide to participate in family gatherings, the key to success is preparation of both the teen and the extended family.
Preparing your teen:
Use social stories: As you know, kids on the spectrum don’t do well with a change in routine. Develop a “social story” with your teen about what happens at the family Christmas get-together. Pull out pictures from prior years and review who will be at the party and the usual events of the day. If appropriate, talk to your teen about how she is one of the “big kids” now and what is expected in terms of big kid behavior. One of those calendars with a little door to open each day running up to Christmas can help your child track when the big day will be.
Reinforce coping skills: Knowing when to take a “time out” without adult intervention is an advanced skill. You’ve probably been working on this forever. It might be helpful to devote some extra time to practice self-management and/or responsiveness to your cues that it’s time to withdraw for a bit.
Reduce potential sensory overload: If “dressing up” makes your teen uncomfortable, stick with familiar clothing. If a noisy environment is a trigger, bring along ear buds so she can listen to her favorite music. If strange food is upsetting, bring her favorite dish instead of expecting her to eat what everyone else does.
Review mealtime behavior: Consider whether your child is really ready to participate in a sit down dinner with 10 people. If not, he might do better if your immediate family ate separately in the kitchen while the rest of the family is in the dining room. Don’t think of it as reverting to the “kid’s table”. Think of it as a necessary accommodation that will make things easier for everyone at this time. Another alternative is for your own family to join the larger group for a short period of time (say, the first 10 minutes or for dessert).
Preparing the extended family
Educate: If members of the extended family haven’t seen your child for awhile, have phone or email conversations with them about how she has grown, progress that has been made and issues that need management. Be specific about accommodations, especially around sensory issues, that will help your teen participate. A little education goes a very long way toward reducing unrealistic expectations and anxieties.
Arrange for a time out space: Ask your host to identify a space in their home where you and your child can take a break for some quiet time if need be. If there really isn’t such a space, ask for understanding if you need to take your child out for a walk or a ride in order to settle him down.
Identify support people: Identify the people in the family who may be helpful and give them a call before the family event. Talk specifically about what they can do to help if your teen is showing stress. People are much more likely to be helpful if they know what to do.
Have an exit plan: All the best of intentions and best planning don’t necessarily guarantee that things will go as you and the family hope. It is better for everyone for you to exit while things are still going well instead of waiting for a melt-down. Plan a graceful way to leave if you need to. Make sure everyone understands that leaving isn’t a negative comment on the party, the people or on your child. Your child is growing but isn’t all grown.