We spend most of the year teaching our kids with autism how “things are supposed to be”; how to behave, how to make friends, how to clean up, etc. Then, once a year, we turn it all on its head and expect our kids (who don’t deal well with change, and take everything we say literally) to buy into the “magic and wonder of the holidays”. Let’s take a moment to look at a few of our holiday traditions and what they might look like through they eyes (and brain) of a child with autism.
What’s this tree doing in the house?
I’ve spent years wondering why my son constantly moved things around my house. It was as if he needed things in their place, although we disagreed on his choice of placement. I’d put baby Jesus in the manger and find him weeks later in the spice rack. Then one year while bringing in the Christmas tree, he demanded, “Wanna put that outside!” Translation: “Mom, what the heck is that tree doing INSIDE the house?” It obviously freaked him out. In addition, we asked him to hang pretty red, glass balls on the tree. You can imagine my surprise when, after a year of teaching him to play catch, he decided to generalize that skill with my grandmother’s ornament collection. He was a little surprised when they didn’t bounce. Hence came our new tradition of plastic ornaments only.
My children are fortunate to grow up in a family with lots of traditions. Because my husband is Jewish, we have a menorah in addition to a Christmas tree. Perhaps the Maccabees had a lamp that burned for eight days, but my son won’t let a candle burn for longer than eight seconds. Birthday celebrations are important traditions for us too, so we’ve spent countless hours “playing” birthday party and teaching him how to tolerate the birthday song and blow out the candles. Consequently, we get about three words into the Hanukkah prayer and, “Baruch atah Adonai, whoosh!” Out they go, and then he applauds. We’ve embraced it as a new tradition.
There’s no time like the presents.
Our son tends to be very impulsive, and will throw or smash things when he gets frustrated, rather than asking for help. We’ve been through six television sets, a dozen DVD players, three sugar bowls, and countless home decor items in fourteen years. My husband and I have made it our life’s mission to stop this behavior, so we spend much of our time reminding him, “Look, don’t touch”, and “It’s a decoration, not a toy”. Then we give him a pile of beautifully wrapped presents, with sparkly paper and delicate red bows, and ask him to tear into them. It took several years of Christmases until he opened gifts willingly. And so began the brief tradition of gift bags.
Whether your family traditions start out of habit or necessity, take a moment this holiday season to view things through your child’s eyes. Let go of what’s “supposed to be” and embrace what IS. You may be surprised how your child responds when they are accepted for who they are. As I let go of my rigid expectations, my son let go of his. This year, I decided to take a chance and put a few glass ornaments on my tree. So far, so good. And although my manger scene is missing a magi, the gifts will be wrapped, our menorah is waiting to be lit, and I am hopeful.
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