Giving Thanks Includes Autistic Family
Family-focused holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Kwanzaa can be particularly important events in the life of those with autism. The autistic may be particularly sensitive to these days, and the events that comprise holiday family traditions.
At Thanksgiving, for example, most families gather for a big dinner with far too much food, and usually enjoy watching a sports event afterwards, all together as a family unit. However, families with autistic members often find this very difficult – either the autistic family member is living in a group home, sometimes far from the family residence; or their autism may erupt into a meltdown resulting in isolation from the family.
Still worse, many autistic people feel incredibly uncomfortable around the family, particularly when other relatives they don’t see routinely are present. These autistic persons will often self-isolate in order to avoid the often forced contact. Yes, when Aunt Grace grabs Bobby’s face to pinch his cheeks and give him a big kiss, she’s forcing him to look her in the eye and making him extremely uncomfortable (not to mention that almost every kid hates it when an adult pinches their cheek).
All too often family holiday events are something the families of autistic children and adults try to survive or manage, with little to none of the enjoyment they deserve or desire. Just getting past the holiday is the goal, rather than the communal sharing the holiday represents. Rather than being the joyous day the holidays are supposed to be, they’re often the most stressful days of the year with the least pleasure.
Holiday movies, television commercials and magazines portray a completely different picture of American family holidays than is usually experienced in families with autism. This creates resentment, frustration, feelings of guilt and stress that can take any possible joy from the celebration, and unfortunately can result in longer-lasting family difficulties.
It doesn’t have to be like that. With some creative planning, and strong communication within the family before the holiday, the celebrations can be wonderful and include the autistic child or adult to their satisfaction and general happiness. Bobby’s only unhappiness at the holidays should come when he doesn’t like the Brussels Sprouts.
Tips for a Happy Holiday
Tip No. 1
During holidays, it’s important to remember that parents of autistic children, no matter their age, are prone to say things in the heat of the moment, under intense stress that likely will create problems for the child and spouse, and other members of the family. Normally unspoken thoughts suddenly blurt out in anger, rage, or other emotional outbursts resulting in nothing but problems.
If you’re still feeling bad after thinking about your family first and foremost, then accept your feelings and use practical, non-confrontational means to deal with them. Write a journal; call a trusted friend; seek professional counseling or call a help line, but whatever you do, don’t lash out at your child, your spouse or your relatives. Take it easy. Keep calm and carry on with the holidays for their sake and your own. After all, the consequences of an outburst of anger are far worse than any temporary issues that may occur during the celebration. Put it all in perspective. Being a good parent is what it’s all about, and what you work for every day.
Tip No. 2.
Remember you’re not alone. Both parents can be equally stressed, but so can the autistic child or family member and those without autism. In fact, sometimes the strain is worse for them, since they’re torn between their autistic sibling and stressed parents.
Holiday depression can often be the result of being indoors too much while preparing for the celebration. Lack of sunshine reduces Vitamin D, and puts you in a depressed state. Simply getting 30 minutes sunshine each day can brighten your perspectives.
Also, keep in mind that even without an autistic family member, each holiday causes depression in someone. At Independence Day, illegal aliens fear deportation and think of their loved ones back in their homeland as Americans celebrate. Valentine’s Day leaves millions depressed who are not married, dating or have no prospects. There’s always someone just as miserable out there for each holiday as you’re feeling.
Tip No. 3
Keep true to yourself.
When you were single, or a young married, you were the great chef, or the hottest realtor in the area. Now, you’ve suddenly become the parent of an autistic child, and all your identity has gone to being just that – and nothing else. Inside you remains that once great professional, and its up to you whether you are identified as the pro you are or simply the parent of a child.
Though our children often identify who we become as parents, even without autism, its inclusion in the family can be daunting and overpowering. Take control of yourself first, and remember doing this makes you a better parent. After all, you didn’t fail your goals in life by having children, nor by having an autistic child. It’s still you inside, so be true to yourself. Go on… talk to your colleagues and co-workers, past or present and discuss business, not kids nor conditions.
The holidays may present an opportunity to be yourself, so seize it and enjoy doing what you like. It doesn’t mean you’re letting down your children, spouse or autistic offspring. If anything, being the parent of an autistic child can make you stronger as a person, and those strengths can be applied to your career. Even if you chose to give up work in favor of child rearing, there’s no reason you must give up your career choice or interests. Give thanks for your autistic child, because he or she makes you a much stronger, better person.
Share this concept with your spouse and work together to be yourselves.
Tip No. 4
Be a friend – to yourself and others. None of your friends are that solely because you’re the parent of an autistic child. They like you. Capitalize on that by being a good friend and keeping your friendships active. Don’t put them off because of your parental responsibilities.
True friends will not only remain so, but will have strong empathy for your role and understand what you’re undertaking as a parent. They’ll be helpful, compassionate and there for you when you need them most. You should also learn to accept that some people who aren’t parents won’t understand what you deal with every day. Don’t be offended by their ignorance. If anything, illuminate them and demonstrate how wonderful your child can be, focusing on the good, not the difficulties.
You have to also consider that your friends are part of your personal support network, so it’s important to keep those friendships. They say “no man is an island’, and that applies to women, too. Friends and friendships are important, if not critical to your success as a parent, and spouse. So, don’t shut your friends out of your life. Include them. Embrace them into your life and family. They’re a priceless asset.
Tip No. 5
Help is only a phone call away. You’ll be surprised, but keeping a strong social network, including close friends and family can provide you with an unbeatable resource for help with you’re in need. If you’re not a superhero, complete with cape and fancy uniform, then set your standards a little lower. Asking for help isn’t a crime – it’s human.
At the holidays, the mounting pressure can make you feel vulnerable, and put you behind in your goals to provide the kind of holiday you think your family desires. Reaching out to others for help or guidance can yield surprising results. While you have your pride, it’s not unreasonable to seek help when needed.
The holiday season is probably the best to ask for help, as others will be both understanding and compassionate to your needs. Don’t feel you’re taking advantage of anyone by asking. The worst that could happen is someone says they’re not able to help. If that happens, don’t be offended. But don’t give up.
Don’t be ashamed to ask for and accept help. Not only will it help you enjoy the holidays more, letting others assist and participate in your preparations will also make them feel good, allowing them to live out the true holiday spirit.
Tip No. 6
Don’t just make the celebration, be part of it. Many parents, with or without autistic children work so hard at making a holiday special for their children that they forget very easily, how to enjoy it with the family. This results in the children not feeling their parents are paying attention to them, which is particularly disturbing to an autistic child who usually looks up to their parents for guidance and assistance.
Participate in all the activities and learn to differentiate creation of celebration from enjoying celebrations. You’re entitled to both and if you think this way, you’ll be assured to enjoy it all. If you love cooking, get recipes here: Epicurus.com (they’re a major supporter of Reform It Now).
Many parents of autistic children don’t feel they have a right to participate in their child’s holiday, and must work extra hard to make the celebration perfect for them. This is somewhat misguided thinking. Your participation is essential, not only in preparation but in the event itself. More to the point, without you, it may make your autistic child think you don’t care enough about him or her to join in the festivities. They see your weary expression and when it’s over, they sense you feel relief. Active participation will make you much more important to the autistic child, and closer.
The celebrations and activities of holidays need not be excessive just to please your child. When the child sees you relaxed, they can relax too, so participate, enjoy and share the love with your entire family. After all, that’s the point!
Tip No. 7
Public and private events can be fun. Parents must choose the types of activities and events they’ll have the family participate in for holidays. Taking a child to see Santa, for example, can be fun, but equally difficult with an autistic child. Nonetheless, such activities are an important part of family life.
If your children are boys, sporting events can be fun, while girls might enjoy shopping trips. Pick the events based on your family’s likes wishes, but pre-set expectations and goals. Make it fun, but not carefree fun, and keep your goals realistic.
The same rules apply whether you’re attending a holiday dinner at friends or family’s homes or having them to your residence. Just be comfortable about what you’re doing and share that comfort with the entire family so that everyone’s comfortable. Let those you invite or who invite you know of your child’s condition and what to expect.
Tip No. 8
Time to be yourself. As the parent of an autistic child, you doubtlessly live for your child and your family. Dedication is your by-word, but you need time to be you – to unwind, unravel, and discard the pressure you feel every day. Take an afternoon and get your hair done or cut, have lunch with a friend, try a spa treatment… do something you feel comfortable doing that you can afford.
Don’t even feel guilty about it. After all, a refreshed you is far better for your child than if you’re a pent-up pile of emotional discombobulation. You have to feel human to be or act humane. So treating yourself well is treating your entire family well.
Tip No. 9
Communicate with your spouse. The hectic pace of raising an autistic child, and catering to the child’s needs sometimes results in a wide disconnect between husband and wife. Since the family wouldn’t be together without you both, it’s important to communicate, to reconnect with your spouse, and to be a couple rather than just parents.
Go out for dinner, take in a movie, go on a date. Take a walk together; hold hands. Just spend an evening once in a while being a couple. It will help calm tensions between you both arising from family issues and problems. A loving kiss is more therapeutic than all the pills out there. Try it!
The re-bonding between you and your spouse is going to reflect in a stronger family and better management of the problems you face.
Tip No. 10
Remember your other children. Every member of your family is special and has unique needs, whether they have autism or not. Don’t neglect the other children even though your autistic child has a greater need.
The other children will begin to feel anger, jealousy and frustration with their autistic sibling and you, so make sure you’re very even-handed in the time spent with each child. Giving thanks is important, but make sure to include the whole family, and not specify your autistic child. By doing so, you’re giving credence to your other children’s fears.
Bring ‘Em Home
In many cases, your autistic child or relative lives independently and away from your home. Holidays are even more difficult for these people, so it’s important to include them in every possible holiday celebration. After all, whether living on their own or in a group home, they feel isolated from those they love, and excluded from family functions. That cause fear in them that shouldn’t be felt if they’re part of normal family celebrations.
Giving the independent autistic person help to participate in the family, such as picking them up and bringing them home, or having their favorite holiday food makes them feel wonderful.