Making the Season Merry for One and All | Organization for Autism Research

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Tis the season to be merry. But for those of us who have children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), it can be overwhelming. While most people enjoy the Christmas lights, holiday carols, and giant inflatable reindeer adorning front lawns, we know that our children may shy away from such festivities or run away with their ears or eyes covered. Not being able to anticipate the response can turn an enjoyable situation into an uncomfortable one during the holiday season.

The lights and displays at stores during the holiday season used to draw me in. I’m a Christmas junkie, with several boxes of Christmas décor that I love to display and music I enjoy playing. And, oh, the lights! But my son’s response is not the same. Depending on his mood, he will stare at the lights and cry when I try to leave to go to the next section of the

store or he may become bothered and yell instead. If people are singing along with the music playing, he may tell them to “stop it!” Last year, as we were still learning about his diagnosis, it was easier just to ignore these areas all together.

It can be difficult to try and incorporate holiday activities for the whole family when I have one child with autism and one without. I would that I was planning something fun and festive, and it often turned into something quite different. My husband and I contemplated taking the kids to see Santa last year. When we passed him in the mall and asked my son what he thought, he cried. Not worth it. If he’s already scared, we didn’t want to make it worse.

Another time, we took the kids to an amusement park to go on a few rides and enjoy the lights at night. It seemed like things were going all right at first, until we tried to take him on a few of the children’s rides. He screamed and kicked the entire time in line and when getting into the ride. The girl who was helping us onto the ride asked if he was okay; I replied that he was just anxious for the ride to start. As soon as it began, he started to laugh and clap. We didn’t want to deny my daughter the chance to go on rides, and I knew that my son ultimately enjoyed them once they started, so we spent time apologizing in line for his behavior in order to allow both kids some joy.

Christmas gatherings have also been a source of tension. Strangers milling around, noise, and other distractions confuse and upset my son. I wind up hiding in a corner with him until he feels ready to explore. The cookies and candy put an already strung-out child on a sugar-rush, so once he crashes, it’s time to leave. He will let everyone know.

Patience is something he is still learning. Waiting in line to see lights or displays, understanding that not every present is his to unwrap, waiting until after dinner to have one of those delicious holiday desserts. The holiday season is full of temptations and desires for my son, who does not respond very well to the word “no.”

So what do we do? Do we shy away from the lights and displays? Do we stay home where the environment is more controlled? Last year, when his autism diagnosis was new to us, we did stay home. We didn’t know any better and had no idea what to do with him.

This year, I vow to be different. So what if he is loud? So what if he starts to stim when he sees an inflatable snowman in the store? I now have a plan to go into each situation with a toy if I need to occupy him, an idea for a quiet space to run to if we need to, and enough joy and love in my heart to allow him to just be him. On the outside looking in, it may seem that my son cannot handle the holidays, but I believe he is just showing his excitement in his own way. Perhaps he gained a love of the season from his mom, and this year, instead of ignoring the festivities for fear of how he will act, I will go with the flow and let him have fun. Simply having that mindset before we go out makes a huge impact on my own responses to his behavior. So, yes, this season will be merry and bright!

In the spirit of this month’s message and of the season, we at OAR would like to thank you for what you do for the individuals with autism in your life, offer the warmest of holiday greetings, and wish you good health, happiness, and success in the New Year! We look forward to working with our partners in the autism community and you in 2015, and will strive to do even more to confront the challenges of autism and improve the overall quality of life for all persons with autism.

Allie Weippert is currently a stay-at-home mother of two: Elizabeth just turned four, and Liam, who is almost three, was recently diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. She recently started a blog about the day-to-day life of being a military wife and mother to a child with autism. Weippert has a master’s degree in psychology and has spent the last several years working in college administration.

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