Beth's experience in the medical field and volunteer work with the CDC inspires her to encourage others to aim for success.
The Asperger's Family Holiday Journey
Raising an Asperger child was not easy, but gave me a full appreciation of the strength obtained while raising a special needs child. Kids with high-functioning autism thrive by patterns and have a difficult time understanding how to break out of those patterns. This makes the holidays a unique challenge for many families.
Holidays often leaves parents of children with Asperger syndrome in difficult situations. When in reality, they should be fully enjoying the holiday. Don't let the obstacles keep you from making lots of happy memories. Use the structure that Aspies crave to your advantage.
Children with Asperger were born with a brain that sees the world differently than the status quo. Their brains don't have the same filters for stimulation, so they can become overstimulated by things most people wouldn't even consider. The great thing is that Asperger's kids are high functioning. Even though they were born with brains that experience the world differently, parents can help them learn to connect with the world in ways that can help them thrive in everyday life.
Not every Asperger's child is the same, but all Asperger's parents dread the overstimulation meltdown. Holidays actually help Aspies by giving them a chance to flex their social skills in groups that will be understanding, that's what family is for after all. Each and every holiday can be used to help further their ability to cope with difficult emotions and self-moderate in large social groups.
Preparation and Planning
There are tools you can use to teach your Asperger's child to enjoy the holidays with few, or no, meltdowns. The tool you choose will depend on the child's age, holiday, and unique personality of the Asperger child. As an Asperger's parent, I know looking at the specifics of each outing is essential to planning for a good outcome. There is a lot of great generic advice out there, letters to send to family, and coping techniques developed by Autism Societies.
Here I want to break down the information so that it is as specific as it can possibly be, with the understanding that each Aspie has a different set of symptoms. Below, I will separate the information according to the child's age. The tools you use with a four-year-old with Asperger syndrome are different than that of a teenager. Each section will cover tips and tools for major holidays for the specified age groups.
Hopefully, this will help you save time by allowing you to easily access the information you need. When it comes to holidays, Parents of children with Asperger's must go through many more preparation steps than many, and others often don't realize the added strain. I understand how important your time is, and hope you find these tools and tips helpful in reducing anxiety and stress during the holidays.
The following holidays will be explored for ages birth to 20:
- Thanksgiving, fourth Thursday of November
- Christmas Day, December 25
- New Years Day, Jan. 1
- Mother's Day, three weeks before Easter Sunday
- Father's Day, third Sunday of June
- Independence Day, July 4th
- Halloween, October 31
Give Your Opinion
Thanksgiving, on the fourth Thursday of November, begins the holiday season. Think about this holiday as your chance to prepare your child for gatherings seen at Christmas. This time of year is over-stimulating to children with Asperger's syndrome. It may amplify your child's social, cognitive, physical, and language and speech symptoms. This may cause your child emotional distress or to withdraw.
Holidays are a good time to help your Asperger's child to understand and express empathy, and to teach them how to interact in large social groups. Begin slowly, when they are young and use every holiday as a teaching lesson.
Birth to 10
While many parents won't get an Asperger's diagnosis until a child is older, sometimes signs present quite young. My son began rocking his head back and forth as soon as he could hold it up and was a full hand and body flapper by the time he was two. Use Thanksgiving to teach your family to understand your child's Asperger's. Begin to explain the social symptoms, and help family learn what they might expect from your child.
As soon as they learn to communicate simple ideas, begin teaching your child about facial expressions and gestures. Asperger's children don't often connect those dots on their own. Make flash cards, and play games that teach your child about the special language they hear during Thanksgiving. The concept of being thankful is an important one to teach and connect to logical thinking as soon as possible. People with Asperger's do feel thanks but need help understanding how to express it to others.
If your child is 2-10 use flashcards to teach your little one about facial expressions and gestures. If your child was diagnosed later, begin it now. At this time, humans begin to see the relationships between cause and effect. While Asperger's children develop connections between spatial, geometrical, and logical conditions quickly, they struggle to understand the logic behind social etiquette.
Your child needs your help to keep them from simply learning to mask behaviors others might perceive negatively. As Asperger's parents, the goal isn't to teach them to pretend to be something they aren't, but rather to help them learn to fit while being themselves. To avoid the social stigma, they need to work hard to develop their thought process to be adaptable in social situations. It will be a long process, a journey, but if they learn coping skills and self-control, then they can rise above the stigma,
Use Thanksgiving as a time to begin explaining social interactions with an emphasis on the cause and effect of social behaviors. Play games where you mimic social situations and give children flashcards with options they can act out. Help them practice giving thanks verbally, as they might be asked to do at school or family gatherings.
10 to 18
Puberty may have set in by this time. This causes Asperger's children to feel even more stimulated than usual. The added hormones make it a difficult time for youngsters. During Thanksgiving, they may be getting a lot of unwanted attention from others who what to express how much the child has grown. Continue to help your child learn how to verbally give thanks, but also implement self-regulation. By now you know the symptoms of your child's over stimulation. During Thanksgiving, help your child learn to recognize them too, and teach them to signal you if they feel overwhelmed. Have an alone space worked out for them in advance, but don't let them stay there the whole gathering.
By the time they are a teenager, your child's puberty is in full swing. Their emotions are bouncing and they have a lot to feel confused about. However, this is a great age to begin to teach your child how to make eye contact. When you practice giving verbal thanks with them, emphasis making eye contact with you.
On the days before your gathering, explain to your child about the importance of eye contact during conversation and begin playing practice games. Write down simple funny sentences and take turns saying the whole thing while making direct eye contact. When you get to Thanksgiving dinner, you can give them the task to try to make eye contact as much as possible, and later you can talk about it.
It is good to give children responsibilities appropriate to their age group. Help your child feel included in Thanksgiving by giving them responsibilities. Asperger's kids are really smart, giving your teen responsibilities during the holiday helps keep them focused. Keep your requests simple, and to the point.
This is also a good time to begin practicing verbal self-control, a movement that will aid in the development of independence. Use Thanksgiving gatherings as a time to reinforce teaching body language and verbal cues that others may use when they are ready to change the subject or stop talking altogether. Tending to obsessively talk about one subject, Aspies must be taught how to recognize when they have gone on too long.
When it comes to overstimulating an Asperger's child, Christmas is the mother of all Holidays. Talking to my now grown Asperger's son, I discovered that he used to perceive it as a type of madness. Everywhere you go there is music, and decorations, bright lights, people singing, and a weird guy who pretends to be Santa. Trust me, most high-functioning autistic kids will begin questioning the inconsistencies of all of the Santa Clauses they encounter pretty early on. Be ready to deal with those questions.
Birth to 10
At this age, you may want to avoid taking your child to malls, and shopping centers, that are heavily decorated. All of the lights, colors, people, and decorations might cause stress for your baby. If you do, start small, and work your way up. If you want to take the baby to see Santa Clause, find a sensory-friendly Santa Gathering. Lots of venues have them, but so do some medical practitioners. For example, ABC Pediatric Therapy Network of Beavercreek, Ohio holds a Pediatric Therapy Sensory Santa event where kids can get a one on one with Santa.
If your child is past the baby stage, he or she will need your help adapting to the various sights and Christmas gatherings. Act as an interpreter, trying to logically explain social situations. Use flashcards of facial expressions and body language to help remind your child of how others may be feeling. Also, show them lots of pictures of past holiday events so your child will know what to expect. Work on teaching social cues to your child, and practice volume control for their voices.
For Christmas, you prepare your child and prepare your family. This is a great time to educating others on what to expect, and how they can help. You may want to have a talk with family members. Or, to save time, you may choose to send a letter on behalf of the child that explains how they find social gatherings difficult and includes tips on how to make it a successful holiday.
11 to 18
It is important to start teaching independence as soon as you can with your Asperger's child. Sometimes Aspie's kids seem more interested in themselves than other people. Combined with some language barriers and struggle to show empathy, others may see them as rude. This has a negative impact on your little one and can cause them stress. Don't let your Asperger's child talk endlessly about what they want for Christmas.
Instead, redirect the conversation to what others might want for Christmas. This can be a great learning lesson for your Aspie, who might think others want what they would want. Set aside some money for your child to buy Christmas gifts for others. First, ask your child to make a list of people they want to get a gift for. Help them make an appropriate list. Then talk about each person one by one. You can teach your child how to buy gifts others might like by asking them leading questions. Ask them about the person's likes and hobbies and help them choose an item that would make sense.
Asperger's kids tend to be factual and logical thinkers and struggle with some of the more abstract concepts we see at Christmas. Sometimes they are overstimulated by trying to make factual sense of an abstract concept. A solution for this is to develop your own, and your child's, Metaphorical thinking skills.
Use metaphorical thinking to help develop relationships between ideas in a way that makes sense. Metaphors are figures of speech, and Asperger's people may have trouble understanding the meaning. That's why the parent has to go out of their way to teach meanings behind the most commonly used figures of speech, especially during Christmas. For example, we might say, "The Christmas gifts were a steal!" Even though the meaning is common sense, and Asperger's child might interpret it as "The Christmas gifts were stolen." You can see how that would create conflict.
New Years Eve and Day
New years eve and New Year's day will wrap up the holiday season. This holiday is less involved, but still presents unique challenges for your Aspergers child. By now the time period we refer to as the holiday season has thrown your families schedule way off whack. This is a big deal for Asperger's kids who prefer a certain structure in their lives. Then throw in keeping them up all night and people making lots of noise at the stroke of midnight, and your child could be headed for a meltdown.
Birth to 10
If your child is on the younger end, then you may choose to get them a babysitter and ask for them to treat the night like any other. If they are close to a meltdown, then ask the babysitter not to make any loud noises at the stroke of midnight. However, you might want to celebrate the coming of the new year with your child.
If you choose to include your child in festivities, I recommend that you work on their schedule so that they might take a nap in the early evening before festivities start. For sensitive Aspies, you may want to omit any loud noisemakers from your celebration. However, if that is out of your control, then buy some of the common noise makers and show them to your child. Explain how they work, and teach them what loud sound to expect. Also, explain that people may erupt in joy at the stroke of midnight. That way, they know to cover their ears if the sound will be overstimulating.
Also, remind your child that normal life resumes in only a few short days. If there have been meltdowns over the holiday season use the first few days of the year to give your child time to center themselves before they go back to school. Asperger's kids will really appreciate the quiet time to reflect on the business of the season so they can adjust back to their regular routine.
10 to 18
If you have an older child, it is generally good to make sure they participate in some kind of New Years celebration. By now they should know the general gist of what might seem like the chaos of New Years. As they get older, they may even want to go to parties without you. This might seem frightening for an Asperger's parent, but trust your High Functioning child will use the tools you have given them to create meaningful social interactions.
Still, before they go to the party, it's a good idea to do a specific review of social gestures and social cues. Practice small talk with your Asperger's child to remind them to be active listeners, and to give them something to talk about other than themselves. Even though they are older, you may want to demonstrate a few noise makers and help them engage in self-moderation of their feelings since you may not be there to pull them out of an overstimulating situation.
Mother's Day and Father's Day
This can be a difficult holiday for moms and dads. There's a twinge when your Asperger's child can't seem to find the logic behind such a thing as Mother's or Father's day. Furthermore, issues with fine motor skills might make it difficult for them to do things like making a card. Yet, if you were to help him make the card it would kind of defeat the purpose. This is a holiday where you need some backup. There are reasons your high functioning child should be encouraged to learn to express their thoughts and feelings on Mother's and Father's day.
All parents deserve appreciation, but Asperger's moms are like the secret service of moms and dad's. They can scan the room, determine all overstimulation threats, and have noted where all of the exits are in seconds. They go above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis. Asperger's people are known for being savagely honest, and no one knows this better than mom and dad. Other family members (or the other parent) need to step in and remind the child their role in a well-functioning family by showing mom and dad appreciation, especially on Mother's and Father's Day. Help the Aspie understand the reasons for this holiday by giving it a clear function.
Birth to 10
Even though it's generally a good thing if you can help an Asperger's child to break out of obsessive patterns and routines, Mother's day and Father's Day call for a special routine. Teaching your child to show appreciation later in life, means reinforcing it with the most important people to the Aspie. This is a perfect day to reinforce the idea of putting others before themselves or their all hailed logic. Having someone help your child do something nice for Mother's and Father's Day helps teach them courtesy, which without guidance might elude them.
Have your partner, sister, mother, father or some other family member take charge of helping your Asperger child create, plan, or buy you a special present. Or maybe it can involve a special meal. Create a ritual, a special way you will celebrate a holiday each year, hopefully, it will become tradition. Creating a Mother's and Father's Day routine will give your child patterns that make sense to them, even if the holiday itself might not fall within their logic parameters. They can pull from this appreciation routine later in life when they are in a social situation which requires showing appreciation to another.
11 to 18
The teenage years can put a real strain on the parent-child relationship. That's OK. But it's important to make sure kids know we love them, even through the hard parts. Asperger's teens can fall into a stigma where they feel trapped in a stereotype. Under those conditions, they learn to mimic, not connect with, the world. It is healthy if we can teach them how to show appreciation, even through difficult times. Having a friend or family member help your teen with Mother's and Father's Day, helps them practice appreciation, even when it doesn't make sense to them.
Encourage teenage children to Google ways to show appreciation to mom and dad. And, to understand research the functional relationship between showing appreciation and the wellbeing of the family unit. If you can get them interested in learning how to show appreciation in meaningful ways and to develop some type of reasoning behind it, you will make real progress.
Independence Day in the US is on July 4th, but many countries celebrate an independence Day. This causes parents of those with Autism a real challenge. While some Asperger kids love fireworks, a great many of them feel overstimulated by the whole experience. American independence days are filled with music, fireworks, and large crowds. Other countries have similar types of gatherings.
Some parents skip this holiday altogether because Independence Day is a recipe for sensory overload. However, it helps to include Asperger kids in social gatherings because it helps teach them how to learn to socialize. It exposes them to new things.
Some ways you can reduce the chance of a July 4th meltdown:
- Provide sound reducing or eliminating headphones.
- Give the child anti-glare sunglasses.
- Bring something the child likes, and is familiar with, to the event.
- Explain the event to the child so they know what to expect.
- Show the child pictures of past July 4th gatherings, and fireworks. Explain the sights and sounds.
- Ask the event planner to include food your child will eat, or bring it from home.
- Park someplace where you can make a getaway, in case the sights and sounds are too much or there is a meltdown.
- Look for alternative local sensory events.
Halloween is an exciting time but can seem illogical to some Asperger children. They usually want to join the festivities with the other kids, but sensory issues may cause some problems. Trick-or-treating itself doesn't always go as planned. I remember a Halloween when my Asperger son was five. He went to three houses and then matter of factly stated he was done. He wasn't melting down, he was just finished, and nothing would change his mind.
Don't get emotionally overinvested if Halloween doesn't go as you would expect. My son grew to love Halloween, and things became more traditional as he got older. However, I learned a lot of things a parent can do to help the holiday go smoothly. Parents of autistic children must anticipate all of the possible sources of overstimulation and look for a solution.
The costume itself is of major concern. Asperger's kids may not do well with the feel of some materials, masks, and need something easy to put on and take off. Start planning for Halloween by asking your child what they want to be, and then putting together a low-sensory costume that won't cause agitation. Also, make sure the child will be warm enough.
Spend some time practicing the social norms of Trick-or-Treat. You will need to repeat this process every year until your child gets the knack of it. Explain how each interaction will work, and stay with your child in case they encounter pets or a situation that might upset them. Teach them to say "Trick-or-Treat" and to say "Thank You" every time.
If traditional Trick-or-Treat isn't going to work with your child, then you may consider looking for a low-sensory event or attend a local Trunk-or-Treat. Some assisted living communities hold low-sensory Halloween events, which are helpful for both Autistic children and the elderly who enjoy getting a chance to interact with people. If you are looking for a Halloween party check your local museum. For example. Pensacola Museum of Art and Autism Pensacola, Inc throw an amazing low-sensory Halloween party where you have lots of back-ups to make Halloween enjoyable.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Beth Trent