Growing up, many of us participated in our personal family traditions during the holidays. This time of year can be very stressful for all of us, but we continue with the traditions because they give us a sense of family, belonging, and nostalgia. Often parents wish to share the joys of these traditions with their children. Significant others may also want to share in, combine, and add to the traditions of years past. We develop desires and expectations for the people we love to experience and feel the same joy that we felt during the holidays of old without them. This is a wonderful and beautiful desire, however it is one that can pose many difficulties in families of those on the autism spectrum.
As is well known, children and adults on the spectrum quite often embrace the tradition of the daily routine, or sameness. The holidays are filled with loud, bustling energy, music, people, smells and even unique foods. Likewise, there is the potential for many unexpected events. These events can prove to be more than just stressful to a person on the spectrum. This time of year could potentially become a debilitating and frightening ordeal. On one hand you have a parent or spouse with a strong desire to share in the pleasures of the season with the people they love most of all. On the other hand you have a loved one fighting the “fun” at every turn out of anxiety, fears of the unknown, and repeated detours from the familiar and safe daily routine. Eventually, the tradition seeker becomes frustrated and upset that the routine seeker is unreceptive to and ruining the fun for everyone else.
Despite this issue, the holidays can still be enjoyed by all if certain desires and expectations are set aside and patience and understanding prevail when realizing that the autistic routine seeker is suffering and not attempting to ruin the fun on purpose. For instance, families may have a tradition of putting up all of the holiday decorations in one day. To a person on the spectrum, this is already too monumental of a task. There are two ways to go about handling this kind of situation. One, change the tradition to accommodate the person on the spectrum by spreading out or eliminating some of the decorating over days and perhaps even weeks. Two, allow the person on the spectrum to disengage frequently from the festivities without consequence or pressure to continue. It is important to remember that seemingly simple tasks such as stringing up lights could turn out to be distressing for a person with autism. To allow the child or adult to take a break and recharge diffuses the potential conflict and imminent meltdown.
On the other end of the spectrum, there may be those who desire to take on the entire load of work by themselves and not allow others to participate because they may be doing it wrong. Quite often those on the spectrum take on enormous tasks with no end in sight such a collecting objects, making lists, and repeatedly reorganizing. The same can be said for holiday festivities where the person on the spectrum has a never-ending list of things to accomplish and refuses to delegate those tasks to other members of the family. The desire to make things perfect far outweighs the desire to get things done with a good enough approach in a reasonable amount of time. It becomes about the person on the spectrum and the desire for perfection rather than a holiday for the entire family to enjoy.
In this situation it is best to allow the person on the spectrum to do what they need to do because interrupting a pattern is highly agitating and stressful to that person. However the person who wants to join in on the festivities and have fun also has feelings and desires that need to be met. The best way to accomplish this is to form separate plans and goals that others in the family can enjoy while the person on the spectrum does his/her thing. In this way there is no interruption in the planning by forcing others to join in where they are not desired and still putting something into the holiday as a family. For example, if the person on the spectrum insists on cooking all of the food for the holiday dinner, the rest of the family can engage in planning the games or do the holiday shopping.
Coincidentally, shopping with a person on the spectrum is something that is very stressful and time consuming. Doing a task like this during the holiday season is magnified tenfold with the influx of shoppers, choices of items, and noises such as holiday bells ringing in the distance. Delegating this task out to others who are not as affected by these distractions is ideal, however if you must bring your autistic child or spouse with you there are some very important guidelines to follow. First, try your best to visit the stores on off hours such as during the day before or after lunch. Next, have a very specific plan as to what stores you will go to and what items you are looking to purchase. Do not go to the store to browse or simply walk around. This is too open ended for a person on the spectrum. Lastly, make sure you explain why you are going to the store, what you need to accomplish at the store, and give a good estimate of the time it will take to accomplish the task. It cannot hurt to provide a reward at the end of the experience for the child and adult alike. Examples of good rewards are a small but desirable gift of their own to be given to them at the conclusion of the shopping experience or a delicious but healthy treat to be had at home in a comfortable and safe environment.
Finally, it is important to remember that the holiday season can be extremely unpredictable. Plans can change a moment’s notice. Parties may be cancelled or delayed due to illness or other unexpected events. These changes in plans can cause a person on the spectrum to feel great levels of anxiety, especially if they were preparing for the event for some time. It is important to remind your child or adult on the spectrum of the possibility of plans changing and offering alternatives before the actual event is cancelled or postponed. For instance, a mother could tell her child that on December 7th they are going to a party at Charlie’s house, but if the plans fall through they will instead take a ride to see the holiday lights on display in the town square. This backup plan serves as a safety net for those on the spectrum. We will be going to A as long a B occurs, if not we will do C instead. Children and adults on the spectrum respond very well to these alternatives when they are planned and anticipated. True, it is a lot of work for someone not on the spectrum to think of offering an alternative like this so far in advance because he/she can easily go with the flow and decide at the last minute to either stay home or find something else to do, but that can be nearly impossible for a person on the spectrum to accomplish without a serious meltdown. It is always best to avoid the worst by being well prepared for any and all possibilities.
All in all, the spouse or parent must be willing to relinquish the desire to share in an experience that may not be able to be recreated at all. The importance of sharing in these festivities must be diminished in order to avoid disappointment. Having no expectations or preconceived notions about how the holidays should be will give way to not feeling any disappointment when things go awry. This type of acceptance is crucial in order to make the holiday season peaceful. It takes the pressure off of the person on the spectrum and allows for opportunities to reengage in the tradition at a later time. Perhaps over the years things will slowly become closer to the ideal image of what a traditional family holiday should be, but even if that goal is never reached the holidays will always have a beauty and wonder that will be shared by every member of the family individually in their own unique ways.
Jaclyn Hunt is a Life Coach specializing in the Autism and Special Needs Population. She works with adults on the spectrum, parents of autistic children and adults, spouses of adults on the spectrum, and anyone affected by autism or other related special needs. Visit her website to learn more: