How to Manage Difficult Family Visits with an Autistic Child

Kids Upset at Christmas

Some families are wonderfully supportive of their autistic members. They understand that their autistic family member is likely to need time and space to themselves.  They have also learned how to connect, when to step back, and how to notice and comment on new skills and abilities. 

Members of those lucky families are unlikely to be reading this article.

If you ARE reading this article, chance are you're like most parents of a child, teen, or adult with autism.

  Your extended family means well, but many of them seem to be absolutely unable to avoid commenting on your child's differences, questioning your parenting skills, and/or providing unwanted advice based on half-baked media stories about autism.

You may even be unlucky enough to have family members who are afraid of autism. These individuals may actually walk out of the room when your child walks in, or ask that your child not interact with theirs.

If you are headed to a family gathering that will include some of these unwelcome -- or even hurtful -- interactions, you have two choices. 

First -- option 1 -- you can decide to stay home.  This choice, while it may sound unrealistic, is actually perfectly reasonable in many cases.  If you feel uncomfortable explaining your true reasons for staying home (cousin Bob is so rude and nasty to my son that I will actually wind up socking him if I come!), then this might be an occasion for a white lie (both kids have the flu, for example).

  Just be sure NOT to post your happy family photos on Facebook for a week or two!

Second, you can prepare yourself for the occasion, and take steps to make yourself and your family as comfortable as possible in a difficult situation.  This will require you to be both proactive and forthright. Here are some tips for achieving that goal:

  1. If it is feasible (and only you know your family politics), talk with your host and with those people most likely to create problems for you and your child. Explain your concerns in a positive manner, and ask for specific changes in behavior -- for example, "please don't ask Bobby to play football with his cousins unless you're okay with his saying No."
  2. Consider the possibility that staying with family or friends may be too intense and overwhelming. In the nicest possible way, explain that you absolutely want to join your family -- but that your autistic child also needs quiet time away.  As a result, you'll be staying at a nearby hotel, and spending as much time as possible with family.
  3. Bring any supplies you feel are necessary to help your autistic family member to cope with the intensity of family gatherings.  These may include videos and a dedicated DVD player; headphones; fidget or comfort objects; favorite clothes or blankets; "fidget" balls -- anything that helps to lower anxiety and create a sense of familiarity.
  1. Insist that your host make a room available for your autistic family member during whatever period of time you spend in their home. Explain that you don't really care how many other people will want their own space -- this is medically necessary, and you won't be able to come if the room isn't made available.  With a quiet space available your child (and you!) will have a built-in getaway.
  2. Even though you may feel uncomfortable doing so, set ground rules with your extended family. Let them know that it is not acceptable to leave the room when your child walks in, and that mean-spirited comments should be made elsewhere -- outside of your hearing or your child's. Explain that this rule extends both to adults AND to children.
  3. If you feel it's necessary, you may need to tell "helpful" family members that you're really not in the market for new information about causes or treatments for autism -- or parenting advice. Let them know that you'd be happy to read their emails if they really feel they have something important to share, but "family time is for fun."
  4. Prepare your autistic child for the experience by asking ahead about exactly what's planned, and in what order it will occur.  Put together a social story with as many images as possible, and go over it multiple times with your autistic child.  If changes seem likely to occur, include that information in the social story ("after dinner, we might watch TV or we might go for a walk").

 While all these measures may not guarantee a fun and happy gathering, they will put you in the position of managing your own experience -- and actively avoiding challenges that could make you, or your child, miserable.

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