Talk About the Holidays

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We know that holiday gatherings can sometimes be very challenging for the families we serve. TACA Volunteers have been known to use their own experiences to help other families have better experiences. Whether you will be hosting a family affected by autism or you are looking for information to share with a potential host regarding your child, we hope you will find these tips to be helpful.
 

Talk about photos:

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- If doing a large group family picture at a holiday gathering, try to get the best picture by doing the following:

Get everyone in place before bringing in the child with autism so the child waits the least.

Make sure everyone knows that they need be smile-ready since it may take several shots to get the child with autism to look at the camera. Try to make the child with autism laugh, so the smile will be natural. A well placed fart noise, or somebody off-camera doing silly gestures could help with this.
- Some kids with autism like “selfies”. For one family, that is the only way to get their child on the spectrum to participate in a picture. Consider doing a bunch of family selfies and then make a photo collage.
- If all else fails, just know you may have a good photo to submit to AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com

 

Talk about food:

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- The parent of a child on the spectrum who is also on a special diet does NOT expect you to be able to prepare a full allergen-free meal, but here is how you can help:

Let the parent know ahead of time what you are serving so that they can find a substitute.

Be willing to sacrifice a food that could cause a tantrum, just for the day. If there is a highly desired food, like bread rolls, that would cause a meltdown, consider leaving them off the menu to make things a little easier for the family. The day may well come when the bread rolls can return as the child matures and is able to monitor his/her own dietary needs.

If you do take the risk providing some food for the child, don’t be upset if you get it wrong and the child can’t eat it after all. The ins and outs of an allergen–free diet can be confusing if you are not doing it every day. You can have the item ready to show the parent with the packaging and ingredient list available, please don’t be disappointed if you can’t serve it to the child.

 

Talk about gifts:

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- If gift giving is part of your holiday tradition here are some things to keep in mind:

Try to find out the child’s interest keeping in mind their developmental age. If the child has an interest in trains, they may not be able to read the age level book on that subject. They may need something closer to their developmental reading age.

Pooling money between relatives for a bigger gift could be the way to go. Some children need iPads or tablets to help with speech and communication. Perhaps a family membership to a local zoo or amusement park is more useful than the latest cool toy. Gift certificates to restaurants that can accommodate dietary needs are great.

An offer of babysitting, if you are willing, would be an amazing gift for the parents.

Be willing to let go of the element of surprise. Some of our kids need to be prepped about wrapped gifts. They have trouble not knowing what is in that shiny box. Some of our kids are more interested in the unwrapping process, and not really interested in the actual gift. For that child, you may need to get several inexpensive toys and wrap them all separately so they have the thrill of opening several items. Sometimes putting a diet-friendly treat, like a Starburst or a lollipop in with the gift helps the child react with delight and surprise. It helps them to experience the joy of the process if not that interested in gifts in general.

Be willing to change and create new expectations. There are always things that a parent of a child with autism is working on to help their child overcome any challenges they are facing. Changing expectations and creating new goals are part of that. If you find out what those goals and expectations are, you can join in THE celebration as each one is met.

Be willing to not take it personally if the child shows no interest in the gift given. It may be something that they will come to treasure at a later date.

 

Talk about noise:

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- Some of our kids are sound sensitive or sensory avoidant, and still others love the action, or are sensory seeking.

For sound sensitive kids consider the following:

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Wrap presents in fabric and ribbon instead of paper. It’s recyclable each year and won’t overwhelm a child who shies away from noise.

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Do a little leg work beforehand about possible challenges relating to noise. Ask mom or dad about possible issues and what can be done to minimize them.

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Consider multiple tables rather than one big large one. It may be better for noise control and to help avoid sensory overload.

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Designate a “quiet room” if that might help. Put a sign up on one of the bedroom doors in the house that says “Timothy’s Quiet Room” and let everyone know if the door is closed, that’s when Timothy needs some quiet time so do not disturb.

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Be willing not to take it personally. Some kids don’t like it when people sing, even if you are Celine Dion.

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Some kids need sensory seeking activities, like pillows piled up on the floor they can crash into, or an area for them to run and jump around.

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Each child with autism is very different, don’t be afraid to ask. Their parents will be so thankful that you cared enough to try to make the holiday enjoyable for everyone.

 

Talk about memories:

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- Memories connect families. They make up our history together. Traditions are the framework for creating memories. The Norman Rockwell images of family holidays are beautiful, but not realistic for anybody.

Be willing to let go of some traditions –you can revisit when the child is able to participate.

For the sound–sensitive child, Christmas Crackers or other noise maker traditions may just have to wait a little bit.

Create NEW traditions. Just like creating new expectations and goals, it’s important to create new one that include everybody.

Sometimes you only see your family once a year – it’s our only time to connect and build on our family memories. The function of a family is to expand to include new members. We hope some of these tips will help make it easier to include your family members with special needs. It’s worth the effort.

Thank you for caring enough to go the extra mile to make an enjoyable holiday that includes everyone. The parents of your family member with autism appreciate this so much. By working together, you can be part of helping the child with special needs feel the love of a wonderful extended family.