Why Autism and the Holidays Rarely Mix Well

Thanksgiving Christmas. Getty Images

As the holidays approach, many families begin to look forward to spending time with loved ones.  The shared stories and laughter... the touch football games in the back yard...  the Norman Rockwell turkey dinners and cheer.  The reality, of course, is that the holidays can be stressful for most people.  In part, that's because the media-nurtured fantasies rarely live up to the real deal.

Families with autistic children (or adults) often have an even tougher time managing the holidays with grandparents and cousins than is typical.

  There are a lot of reasons for that; perhaps some will sound familiar!

  1. Many holiday traditions are built around social niceties that have little to do with reality and truth. People with autism are rarely skilled at (or interested in!) white lies or half-truths.  While it might be forgivable for an adorable three year old to naively ask "Why does Grandma have two chins?" such a question is rarely forgiven when it's asked by a twelve year old -- even when that twelve year old is autistic, and has no notion of why the question is problematic.
  2. Many extended families get together rarely, and, as a result, know very little about one another.  All too often, all that cousins know about an autistic family member is their age, gender, and diagnosis.  As a result, every unusual behavior, statement, sound, or movement is new, worrying, and (for some people) disturbing. This can lead to difficult interactions, negative judgements, and behind-the-scenes whispering which can be hurtful to almost everyone involved.
  1. For many grandparents, sharing stories of grandchildren is a major pastime.  Grandchildren are supposed to be a source of pride and the guarantee that a legacy will be carried forward.  When grandparents who rarely see their autistic grandchildren are confronted yet again with the reality that their grandchild really is disabled, it can be disappointing and even upsetting.  These negative feelings can be passed along to children and grandchildren alike.  Perhaps even worse, grandparents' obvious disappointment can cause mom and dad to actually feel guilty about providing a "flawed" grandchild.
  1. Extended family events are almost certain to create sensory overloads, even for typical family members.  How often do most of us wander off to take a walk, watch a video, play with the family dog, or retreat with a good book?  Imagine, then, how overwhelming such events can be for an autistic person for whom ALL sensory input is challenging!  It's no wonder that so many kids and teens on the spectrum melt down under the Christmas tree.  Sadly, family reactions to the melt downs can send autism parents into meltdowns of their own.
  2. Holidays are all about foods--special foods that are created once a year and enjoyed (or ostensibly enjoyed) by everyone.  It's amazing how disappointed Aunt Judy can be when an 8 year old autistic child says he'd rather have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than her special green bean hot dish!
  3. Siblings of kids with autism can feel a little embarrassed by their brother or sister's odd behaviors.  It's not so bad when they're in different grades or schools -- and it's usually manageable at home.  At Grandma and Grandad's, though, with all the cousins there to watch, it can be excruciating to watch your teenaged sibling enjoy all the "wrong" TV shows, unwrap "babyish" presents, melt down and cry when disappointed, or otherwise do exactly what cool kids DON'T do.  Perhaps its no wonder that autism siblings find the holidays tough -- and often act out in ways that surprise even their parents.
  1. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all have their own ideas about how to raise kids. Few of them (if any) have raised kids with autism -- but that doesn't stop them for offering (or insisting upon) advice or taking action to "fix" problems.  Without asking "why is Johnny upset?" they immediately launch into a lecture on why big boys don't cry -- thus making the situation five times worse, while also infuriating Johnny's mom and dad.
  2. Extended family members have done a little -- but not much -- reading about or listening to media on the subject of autism.  And they are more than happy to share their knowledge.  Who knew that mud baths and Australian sheep dogs could cure what ails your child?
  3. Some family members, watching parents' struggles to help their autistic child manage the challenges of the holidays, feel an obligation to commiserate. No matter what they say ("you poor thing," "my child was just like that," "I'm sure things will get better") it's sure to hit a sore spot and create negative feelings.
  4. Grandparents, in particular, seem to have no boundaries when it comes to asking upsetting and overwhelming questions about autism. Primary among them seem to be questions such as "Will he be able to go to college?"  "What's going to happen to him when you die?" No one enjoys worrying about these issues -- least of all in front of a judgmental and demanding audience!

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