(We originally ran this in 2012. Our friend B.K. passed away in 2014, but here advice for surviving Christmas with a child on the autism spectrum is still really good.)
By the time you read this, it will be less than 48 hours until Christmas morning. I don’t know about you, but I LOVE Christmas. I love the lights. I love the gift wrapping (and opening). I love eggnog. I love gathering with the family to eat lots of food . . . There is very little about Christmas that I do not love. I remember as a little kid being so excited that I couldn’t sleep, thinking about Santa Claus and what he would be bringing while I slept. And now, as the parent, I still have a hard time sleeping, thinking about how my little one (who’s not quite so little anymore) is going to react to seeing the amazing gifts “Santa” has assembled under the tree.
But, as any parent with a child on the autism spectrum can probably testify to, the holidays for your ASD child may not be exactly what you anticipated. Now, I know what you are are thinking! Almost nothing in life ever turns out as we plan, and besides, it isn’t just our ASD kids. Holidays have a tendency to sometimes turn even the most angelic of neurotypical kids into whiny, tantrumming, non-compliant creatures from another planet. But children with autism seem to have an even more difficult time with the chaos of the season. Even if our kids manage to get through the holidays fairly calmly, there can still be an air of — well, strangeness that can put a bit of a damper on things. There have been quite a few years that I have been pretty disappointed when Christmas finally arrived just because my son didn’t quite react the way that I hoped he would on Christmas morning.
With the many lessons I have learned in mind, and having a few years experience under my belt, I’ve decided to assemble B.K.’s List of Holiday Survival Tactics. This is simply a list of things I have learned over the years to help make sure my son has a good Christmas — and it serves a reminder to me that my family CAN have a wonderful Christmas if we prepare ahead of time. Here are a few of the things I have learned over the years:
1. Prepare ahead of time for any family gatherings. Will there be food there that your child cannot eat? Try to arrange with your family to keep the tempting forbidden treats out of sight. Make substitutions if possible. My sister-in-law always has potato chips out for her boys to nibble on while waiting for the big family dinner. Unfortunately, there is something in those regular potato chips in the bright yellow bag that causes my son to have some major freak-outs. So on Thanksgiving this year, I asked my sister-in-law if I could bring the chips. I was able to bring natural, organic potato chips that don’t have such a bad effect on him.
Also, for family gatherings, have an escape plan in case the holiday-gathering chaos gets to be too much for your child. Many Christmases have found my son ready to go home while my husband hasn’t been ready to leave his family yet. We sometimes take two cars, or I will take the car home and one of my husband’s siblings will drive him home later.
2. If you want to get your child to bed at a reasonable hour, try not to hype up Santa too much on Christmas Eve. Personally, I would love to run around singing, “Santa’s coming!” all night; however, that is not going to work for any of our benefit on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve, I just try to stick with our normal bedtime routine and try not to act like anything is different.
3. Let your child ease into Christmas morning. Okay, this is the toughest one for me. I have, on a number of Christmases, run into my son’s bedroom as he is waking on Christmas morning, telling him that Santa came and telling him to come see his presents.
Oh boy. You know what? Santa can be a scary thing. Think about it, a large, jolly, bearded stranger in a red suit has come into your house overnight . . . Yikes!! An intruder! And reindeer up on our roof? AAAAAAHHHH!!! I know for my son, this can be very overwhelming. It is common for kids with ASD to be overwhelmed with out-of-the-ordinary situations. We have had several years that my excitement has freaked my son out and started Christmas off on the wrong foot. So think about it. Come up with a plan for your child. Don’t freak him out like I have been guilty of doing. This year my husband has been reminding me about this for weeks. He knows I get a little carried away on Christmas. (I may need to rehearse this one a little bit.)
4. Don’t be sad if your child is uninterested in his gifts at first. Let him discover them at his own pace. This is another big one here. How many times have I gotten so excited to find the “right” toy for my son, only for him to show absolutely no interest in it on Christmas morning? What I have learned is that my son “eases” into relationships with new toys. Much like when a new kid in school has to work his way into the flock, a new Ernie will also have to be slowly eased into the toy collection. I have seen several instances of what looked like outright rejection of a toy, only to find that toy finally being loved and played with days (or even weeks) later.
5. Don’t set up high expectations that your child cannot meet. Again I am talking to myself here. I have to constantly remind myself that no matter how much progress he is making, he still has autism. I can’t expect my son to suddenly act neurotypical on Christmas. I am sad to admit that I fall victim to this sometimes, and I often feel crushed when we see a meltdown. Go into Christmas expecting some meltdowns. And if you don’t see any, then what a gift that will be.
6. If you are going to allow your child some special holiday treats, set limits! And don’t forget the enzymes and the activated charcoal.
Those are just a few of the things that help us make the holidays more enjoyable for my son. Feel free to leave a comment and share some of your survival techniques. I’d love to read them!
For more blog posts from B.K., please click here.
*** commenting a second time so i can get email notifications. please respond to this comment
hi BK I just enjoyed reading your article about modern idolatry and medicine. I completely agree. It was wonderful reading and think you could have gone even deeper but it was great none the less. I will admit i breezed through this article and stopped when i saw you share santa claus with your kids. my son is 11 months so i haven’t had to address this yet. just curious as a Christian do you feel Santa is an idol? a literal statue and man given all the glory of Christmas time? that gift giving places emphasis on commercialized American values and materialism, ig worldly treasures instead of the eternal gift from Christ? in my experience Santa ruins Christmas. everyone cares about Santa, do we think of the orphans and widows who need us? or are we wrapped up in our own selfish visions of snow globes and hot cocoa? are we teaching our kids life isn’t about shiny presents? are we lying to them to make them behave that Santa is watching(creepy and blasphemous, God is the One Who Sees). or do we make family an idol by rejoicing in our relationships with them instead of focusing solely on our Lord Jesus, as we should every day? magic reindeer???? this seems like an obvious work of the devil to me. to take our eyes off Christ and keep us reveling in the world. I am no legalist sorry if this sounds harsh, just was looking at your content and wanted to challenge you as a sister in Christ if you’ve never thought of these things before. I too love snowmen and cozy fires and gift exchanges and sweaters and mistletoe, it’s my fave time of the year and i love singing the songs and seeing the holly. but as i grow deeper in my walk i ask myself why do i follow the way of the world? is this really Gods way or mans way? with love, Ria.
BK passed away several years ago from cancer. I’m sorry she won’t be able to answer any of your questions.
im so sorry!
I can so relate to this. The only thing I would add is to keep reminding the relatives and friends about the non-reaction thing. I understand it, but others are often disappointed when they give my son a gift and don’t get the typical enthusiasm from him. I often have to say “No, really, he DOES like it!”
Excellent post for so many families this holiday! Have a blessed day with your friends and family!
Please post how you use activated charcoal. I know extra vitamin C can help with the food dye. And of course we all know what the enzymes are for….
We abandoned all the expectations that:
It’s the most wonderful time of the year , a long time ago.
Hypocrisy abounds around any holiday which often brings out the worst in people in varying ways.
The only message we focus on at Christmas is: Jesus loves me.
And for those who are not Christians that : God love all His children.
Much love and many blessings to you all and your families.