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Groans for the Holidays: Preventing Meltdowns on Special Occasions


Well, everyone, it’s that time of year again to use the overly-clichéd phrase “It’s that time of year again.” To use another overly-clichéd phrase, “The holiday season’s just around the corner.” It’s closer than you think, so let the cooking and shopping commence!  Oh, and of course, the planning—the overwhelming onslaught of planning; that’s part of the package, too, and it can be a huge source of stress for anyone. However, when it comes to those who have people of any age on the autism spectrum, be they kids, teens, or adults, that mad dash for holiday happiness always turns into a marathon. Being on the spectrum myself, I know it can be like navigating a minefield while walking (tap-dancing?) on eggshells. Sometimes all it takes is one miscalculation and it’s meltdown city! Or, if not a meltdown, a series of negative reactions that nonetheless pave a rough road ahead—so it begs the question: “What to do?” To that I say, “Ho, ho, ho,” because have I got a gift for you!

Let Us Know

Hey, parents: You know the expression “Expect the unexpected?” Well, people on the spectrum can’t really do that. We flat-out can’t stand the unexpected; our brains are wired (for the most part) to deal with what’s familiar and consistent, so anything that deviates from that in the slightest can wind up upsetting us (even me!). That’s why it’s important to not drag us to some event or make us perform a task the exact moment you want it to occur. Say you’ve got somebody on the spectrum in your family and you’re going to take him or her to a gathering of sorts. First and foremost, realize that if you don’t allow that person to prepare for this scenario, bad things will likely transpire. There could be crying, complaining, the whole shebang—that’s the opposite of what you want! But then what should you do?

Easy: Let us know! I don’t mean tell us immediately before, but do it in advance—say an hour or so before. This allows us to process what’s going to happen instead of trying to do so when we’re not ready. In fact, remind us at regular intervals! First at an hour, then forty-five minutes, then half an hour, etc. This works wonders for us, and we’ll be ready by the time you are. Ah, but perhaps there are some of you who have children who can’t tell time, or don’t even have a solid grasp of it. This is when you need to get creative. Try teaching him or her a sequence of colors using a smartphone, iPad, or projection device—heck, even simple construction paper could work! Once your child on the spectrum has gotten the sequence thoroughly memorized in a variety of different settings, apply it to a scenario involving time. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just stick to red, yellow, and green—just like what you’d find on any traffic light. But let’s do it in reverse; green comes first and would indicate the child can do whatever task he or she’s engaged in, then yellow would show that it’ll soon be time to cease the activity, and finally red means stop—regardless of what’s going on, it’s over. I know that’s not a perfect solution—seriously, I could write an entire article on this topic alone—but it’s worth a shot. After all, you need to know that we need to know!

Sense Our Sensitivity

The solution to this one’s more straightforward: If you haven’t done it yet, try dimming the lights and lowering your voices when everybody’s over and ready to have a good time. You can still have all kinds of conversation; just turn it down a little, and when it comes to anyone there who has autism (and is of course verbal), realize that he or she may not want to talk right away, if at all. This can be a gray area, but that person has a right not to be bombarded with inquiries, let alone be forced to deal with them! If he or she does want to talk, try to let that person set the tone and pace; changes of topic are fine, but I’d recommend starting a change off with “I’d like to talk about something else now.” This ensures a smooth transition. The same dynamic applies to the table when it’s time to eat.

Speaking of eating, there are individuals with autism who can’t handle certain foods—there are just certain tastes and textures that we can’t deal with. Now, me, I’m fine and dandy with whatever there is (except salad, but that ain’t autism)—tastes and textures aren’t a huge deal to me. However, that’s a luxury most on the spectrum don’t have, and some can have a very narrow list of likes. So, make sure to have some of their favorite foods on the table, no matter what it is. I can’t stress that enough. It’s possible that doing so would mean mixing in some foods that just don’t belong there, but by doing something as simple as serving turkey and pizza this holiday, you could prevent much undue frustration for everyone involved.

Patience, Patience, Patience

Okay, so this last one is a common facet in one way or another for everybody on the autism spectrum. I’m referring to our impaired social skills and the little faux pas that occur because of them. We’ll say or do something that’s not the most appropriate around others, and if you know someone with autism, you know that it’s happened before. I trust that you all know we’re not in any fashion doing that on purpose— it’s just how our brains work!

Our brains are wired to comprehend what’s clear and concrete, and being social’s the exact opposite of that. Do you know how many unwritten rules there are to being social? Not only that, do you know how often those very rules change? Whether you realize it or not, what’s okay to say and do never stays the same on a moment-to-moment basis! From the perspective of someone whose mind flourishes with what’s well-defined and tangible, that’s pretty crazy! Think I’m making this up? Try solving math with your feelings, then get back to me—it’s the same thing. So, when everybody’s at the table and that person with autism makes some gaffe, don’t make a big deal over it. This might sound like pretty basic advice, but believe you me, I’ve seen how others react not just to me but others like me when those situations took place. We never try to make anybody around us feel uncomfortable or annoyed—that’s the truth. Please, please just be patient with us! A gentle correction is all it takes. Or, if you prefer (and if that person on the spectrum is capable of understanding), bring it up after the event is over to spare his or her feelings. Yes, I readily acknowledge that there may be instances when it would be better to address whatever happened on the spot, but I reiterate that patience is key.

Don’t be surprised (let alone exasperated) if or when we don’t immediately realize our mistake. Explain it to us clearly as well as slowly, if need be. It really can be that simple. I know there are times when the world’s sleights and stresses drain you dry, and it’s those times when the last thing you want to do is help us interact with others. But the thing is, being patient with us is like those on the Spectrum being social: It might not come naturally, but a lot of great things can happen when you try.
And so, parents, that about sums it up.  The holidays just don’t need to be another source of worry for all parties involved. As the song goes, “’Tis the season to be jolly,” and the dictionary does not define that word as “paralyzed by crippling anticipatory anxiety.” All you need is the right advice and your kid, teen, or adult on the spectrum will have blast just like you! Regardless of whatever holiday you celebrate, know that my words of (what could be construed as) wisdom should make it all a little more bearable and a lot more fun.

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