Autism and the Holidays…

November 30, 2011

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Guest Blog By Holly Bortfeld

I am a single parent of two teenagers with ASD.  I live 3000 miles from everyone I grew up with, and my family.  My ex lives 1000 miles away and has no contact with our children.  I live hours away from friends.  I live here because autism services are tremendous, but I don’t know people here.  There are a ton of “how to survive the holidays with family” articles, but this is not one of them.  This is a story of adaptation and making peace.

Autism is isolating by its very nature.  Autism isolates children from their families, their siblings, their peers and their world.  Autism isolates siblings from friends, communities.  Autism isolates parents from their children, their work, their friends and their money.  Autism isolates.  Perhaps at no other time in the year is it felt as severely as during the holidays.  Nostalgia is brutal.

Now, let’s look at it another way.  Imagine a low-stress holiday.  Imagine peace and quiet, without all the commercial hustle and bustle.  Imagine a place where autism is small and peace is big. Imagine not going insane (and taking everyone else with you) to make sure all 23 dishes are ready and on the table at the same time.  Imagine not listening to your family fighting, or having to hide everything breakable from your child – or hide your child from family members, no matter how well-meaning.  Imagine not having to run after your child the entire time making sure they don’t elope or eat non-safe foods/plants/stuff.  Imagine no shitty parenting advice (because if you would just spank him, that autism would go away).  Sigh.

Do you remember when you got, or gave, a gift that came in a huge box, and the box itself became the best toy of the day providing hours of play?!  That’s what this is like.  It’s pretty awesome.

I recently talked to a mom of a child with autism that was heartbroken and ashamed that autism has taken precedence over the family’s long-standing holiday routine.  For several years, they tried valiantly to incorporate autism into the status quo traditional holiday plans but autism kicked its butt, and theirs.  They took it as a defeat.  I am here to tell you otherwise.  I am here to tell you that status quo isn’t mandatory, isn’t the best, isn’t for everyone.

Do we lock ourselves up?  Hell no!  We just have a new reality.  A quiet, thoughtful holiday.  A menu filled with delicious allergen-free foods, so they can be left out without worry of happy, hungry fingers, that is ready whenever the heck it’s ready.  We might have the turkey for lunch, maybe dinner, maybe in between, maybe at 9pm.  Who cares?  Can you feel the stress leaving already?  How would you like to  get enough quiet time to actually be thankful on Thanksgiving, jolly at Christmas, have reflective dignity at Kwanzaa or grateful dedication at Hanukkah?  What a concept.

Consider for a minute – no one to judge you for spilling wine down your shirt, for burning the cranberries or even that you’re still in your pajamas at 6pm (or that your pants were inside-out all day).  No one to constantly shush your kid with autism, just let him be.  Shouldn’t he get to enjoy a day off too?  It’s time to come to grips with your life and ENJOY it.  No matter what.  Revel in it.  It’s all you have, after all.

We do have tremendous, supportive friends all over the world, thankfully.  And every holiday, we get to “have” dinner with them – via Skype.   We can put the laptop on the dinner table and actually have dinner with our friends, even overseas!  We never miss birthdays either, thanks to “phone shots”, which was born out of necessity from missing too many celebrations because we were thousands of miles apart.  Necessity is the mother of all invention, right?

Before you let the status quo make you feel bad, alone, defeated, rethink holidays.  Rethink peace, togetherness, tranquility.   Adapt and thrive.  And enjoy your holiday, no matter how you celebrate.