by Jennifer Dyer
As we prepare for another holiday season, including visits with family, I’m reviewing the past and forming my plan for helping our autistic child be successful. Large family gatherings can be overwhelming to anyone who has sensory issues, obsessive-compulsive issues, autism, and a host of other challenges. For our autistic daughter Rachel, who has all of the above, large group gatherings border on painful.
As Rachel needs increased time for processing, especially verbal processing, she is often upset by too many loud conversations. Add onto that unusual food smells and bodies filling up space, changing the visual order that she craves, we can dive into meltdown mode in minutes. Since our family is too far away to visit for an hour and leave, we have had to come up with some adjustments.
Be upfront with your family about your child’s needs. We are blessed with a family that is beyond understanding. If this is not the case for you, try not to get caught up in pleasing others. Think about what will help your child have a good experience so that you can build on it year after year.
One way we have done this is to limit the amount of time we spend at large family gatherings. A few years ago, we could only stay a few minutes, which made some of our family sad, but it was better for Rachel. Last year we lasted a few hours at one of the huge gatherings–a new record.
One mistake we made was not explaining to people beforehand about Rachel’s reaction when she becomes overwhelmed. Rachel deals with stress by crying uncontrollably and trying to escape, which can mean running out the door. This is not something that will stop if we just give her a few minutes nor is it a temper tantrum. When Rachel, who is normally happy, gets to the point where she cannot stop crying, she needs to get away from the overwhelming situation. Last year we left one gathering when Rachel got to this point. Family members thought we left because we were embarrassed or worried that Rachel was bothering them. What we should have explained, and later did, was that our actions were for Rachel’s needs and we would try again the next time.
Analyze your child’s needs. As I stated, Rachel needs quiet and low stimulation, at least some of the time. We try to plan to visit some family members before large crowds arrive. Yes, we have missed out on extended family in the past, but each year Rachel has been able to tolerate more people.
Bring items that comfort your child. This is one way Rachel can cope.
Visit places where your child is comfortable, if possible, and try to spread visits out with downtime in between.
Form a plan. For Rachel, she likes to retreat to a back room in my mother’s house or the play room in my sister’s house. We try to stop at one of those houses in between large gatherings. She also likes to play outside in my mom’s sandbox. I bring extra clothes, so even if it is a little wet outside, she can still play and have time to recover from over-stimulation. I do not worry if she doesn’t come to the table when there are a lot of people, but we do try. I’m not certain whether this is the right choice or not. Dr. Temple Grandin says her mother always made her sit at the table and use good manners, which is one of the reasons her social skills developed to the point they are today. I try to judge whether or not Rachel is in a frame of mind where this will lead to success or a meltdown.
Give your child freedom to meet their needs. Last year Rachel was completely overwhelmed after several holiday gatherings and would not come out of my mom’s back room even for pictures and opening presents. For us, that was fine. She needed that time to regroup and be alone.
Have a sense of humor. If nothing else, this will help relieve tension. The less tense your are the better off your child will be.