Thanksgiving is next week, and many are looking forward to the good food and fellowship, especially with fun and silly videos like this one floating around social media. However, holidays can be a time of anxiety and trepidation for parents of special needs children, specifically autistic children. There are many reasons. Families don’t understand the odd behaviors of autistic children. They don’t understand the developmental delays. Family members don’t know how to interact with children with special needs or disabilities, or some aggressive and arrogant family members feel like they have the remedy to your child’s issue. These are some reasons why many parents of special needs children dread holidays.
So, in order to make sure that everyone has a great time at Thanksgiving and this holiday season, here are a few tips on how you can make dinner and the visits less stressful and more pleasant for parents with autistic children.
1. Don’t force the child to look you in the eyes.
My son and many autistic children don’t make direct eye contact all of the time. Sometimes it’s because of the increased activity around them or it can be because of sensory issues. Regardless, don’t force an autistic child to look at you directly by grabbing their face or yelling at them. Be sensitive to their needs in the moment. Many autistic children, including my son, have sensory issues that can overwhelm them quickly. It’s not that the child is disrespecting or ignoring you. It may just be hard for him or her to focus in the moment with all of the people, noise and activity.
2. Don’t openly compare the development of your child to an autistic child.
This is one that hurts me the most raising my son. Oftentimes, families brag about their children and their accomplishments and how advanced their child is in their daycare or school. Then family members ask you what your child is doing, and if your child isn’t doing exactly what their child is doing or not displaying the same behaviors in the same time frame, they question why or worse start judging you. Autism is a spectrum disorder. That means even amongst autistic children developmental advances and abilities vary greatly. My son is potty trained, but I know autistic teenagers who are not potty trained. Stop feeling the need to compare and judge and just enjoy your family members.
3. Don’t ignore the child or pretend they’re not there.
I understand that autism and special needs make some people uncomfortable, but don’t exclude those children by ignoring them. Some autistic children are nonverbal, but they understand and comprehend everything happening around them. My son is verbal, but he may have trouble expressing all of his feelings and fully communicating his thoughts and needs. That doesn’t mean ignore these kinds of children. Again, be sensitive to their needs. Be patient and treat them like a beloved member of the family.
4. Don’t offer unsolicited advice.
If your family member has an autistic child, more than likely, they have a team of specialists including teachers, doctors, speech therapists, occupational therapists, music therapists, and in some instances, case managers. We know you’ve seen a YouTube video and read an article about a miracle cure, but unless we ask, don’t offer us any unsolicited advice. Your advice is even more insulting if you don’t have an autistic child or never interacted with one. We know you feel like you’re helping, but we feel like you’re telling us that despite all of our efforts and team of specialists, we’re still not doing enough.
5. Don’t get offended if we leave early or if we can’t attend.
When my son was an infant, I could not take him to many family events because he would burst into crying fits when there was too much noise. I also couldn’t take him to certain holiday events because of sensory issues. I remember one year when he was around a year old, I had to leave my church’s Christmas production and stand in the vestibule the entire time because the lights scared my son and caused him to have a breakdown. This can happen at your family event. If it does, don’t get offended if your family members have to leave early or if they have to decline your invitation. Don’t take it personal. We just know what our children can and cannot handle. Be supportive!
6. Educate yourself.
If you want to really help a family member with an autistic child feel comfortable at holiday events, educate yourself – and not just from YouTube videos or anti-vaccination articles. Talk to your child’s pediatrician. Learn about things parents of autistic children deal with. Remember a meltdown IS NOT a behavioral problem or a result of bad parenting. Learn about common behavioral traits of autistic children. And after you educate yourself, keep an open mind and heart because even the professionals don’t have all the answers. You can help even more by making certain accommodations in your home if you’re hosting dinner or events like making a room available for your family members to address certain needs of their child.
I know this seems like a lot, but imagine dealing with these issues every day. We all want to see and fellowship with our family members this holiday season, so let’s be mindful of and sensitive to one another.