A few years ago, when my son was ten, I wrote an article for AutismOklahoma, describing how we’d spent family holidays when I was a child and how difficult it was to continue some of those traditions when you have a child on the autism spectrum. He had no interest whatsoever in Halloween or dressing up. He hated the noise of fireworks on New Year’s Eve and the 4th of July celebrations. He could only tolerate short periods of time at crowded family Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. (We learned early on to take two vehicles.) It was hard for me to give up trying to re-create the memories from my own childhood. But as I learned more and more about autism and the sensory processing issues that often accompany it, I realized our best chance for success was to give my son a say in our plans. Sometimes this meant arriving later to family gatherings, bringing our own food, or even saying “No, thanks” to invitations. We learned to recognize when he was reaching a breaking point and would make a swift exit. We came up with alternative things to do for Halloween, and would stay in a hotel New Year’s Eve so there was less chance of being disturbed by fireworks. Basically, we created our own family traditions, and they worked for us.
Fast forward a few years: my son is now thirteen, six feet tall and has matured a great deal. He has learned to recognize when he is becoming overwhelmed and how to speak up when he needs a break or needs to leave. If he says “I need to go,” we take it seriously and quickly take our leave. I believe that this level of communication and respect between us has led to his increased tolerance for holiday events today.
We discovered over the years that he enjoyed fireworks displays, and that it was the unpredictability of our neighborhood fireworks that troubled him at home. He never knew when to expect the noise to occur. We did the hotel thing for a couple more years, and then this past 4th of July, he actually went out and stood on our brick mailbox, holding a small American flag, and watched the neighbors shoot their fireworks.
He still has no interest in Halloween. This year, we went to dinner and to the park to play Pokémon Go. We do the family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as he is now able to tolerate several hours of visiting. We make sure to bring his iPad, food he enjoys and the “Charlie Brown” Thanksgiving and Christmas DVDs that he’ll insist the whole family watch together. We’ll continue watching for signs that he’s getting overwhelmed, but expect to have another wonderful holiday season. “Thinking differently” has led our little family to great success.