Enjoying Family Holiday Gatherings : Tips for Helping My Son with Autism

I love holidays, my husband and I bought a big house with a big family room and deck so we could have both of our families over on the holidays. Not the smartest idea but holidays and family were that important to me, plus I was twenty and it didn’t take much to sell me on a house.

I would spend hours gathering the right recipes for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve dinner and ensuring everyone had their favorite desert available. I loved seeing the people I loved around the table enjoying their time together.

Fast forward a couple years to even more family members, more dynamics, and Logan who has some extra challenges when it comes to holiday gatherings. Challenges that seem to be more pronounced during holiday gatherings. Challenges that aren’t easily understood to those who don’t face them daily.

What do I do to make the holiday enjoyable for Logan and our family?

Reasonable Expectations

Family Christmas Picture

It seems pretty simple right, but so often I have found myself pushing my kids a little harder than they should be pushed to enjoy family outings with our extended family. I like being with my extended family and I want my kids to enjoy it too. However, just because that’s what I want, doesn’t mean that is what is going be to the best for my kids.  I have had to step back and think about what is going to be best for Logan. Is he really going to enjoy something if I push him beyond enjoyment? Will he think of family gatherings as enjoyable if he gets no joy out of them?

Logan and I can do some pretty amazing things together. We’ve flown on planes, tackled new cities, survived preschool in one piece. A long day with family can sometimes be too much, not just for me but also for him. We might not be able to come for dinner but we can manage dessert. We might not be able to spend the evening running from activity to activity. We might not be able to drive around and look at Christmas lights with everyone, but he does love a good movie. Knowing our limits helps prevent disappointment for everyone in our family.

Prep Work

I do a lot, and I mean a lot of prep work with Logan. Prep work has become like second nature for life with Logan. Any new activity, family event, if we do something he doesn’t like, and if we do something he enjoys. We talk a lot about it beforehand, read stories about it, and if there is a song available then we sing about it. Holidays are no different. Seriously, holidays expectations are often hard from adults, throw in lots of people, lights, and festive sounds and it can be pretty overwhelming for a child with autism.

Logan knows what the plan is before we arrive.  Is it dinner, cousin time, is it a family adventure? Logan knows what to expect and isn’t caught off guard for the events of the day.

The Triggers

I know Logan. I know when a stranger tries to hug him he will cringe. I know that forced hugs cause him to be even more distant. I know that if he hasn’t eaten or slept enough he will become grumpy. I know that if he is too hot or too cold it will alter Logan’s enjoyment of an activity. I know that too many people all together can be too much sensory input for Logan. Asking him multiple questions in a row will cause him to completely shut down.

You can see how easily Logan’s triggers can be tapped at during a family gathering. I stay alert and watch how Logan is reacting or if a trigger might be occurring. Being aware and keeping an eye out allows me the opportunity to intervene and advocate for Logan. Sometimes this is simply by distraction or change of scenery.

Offering to Host

Family

Change and new enjoinments can often be hard for Logan. By offering to host family gatherings allows him to be in an environment where he feels safe and comfortable. This makes a huge difference for Logan. When gatherings are hosted at our home, Logan is more flexible, personable, and engageable. Plus I know he is safe and has access to many of his comfort items.

Out of Town Family

There are several family members that Logan only sees a couple times a year. I prepare him beforehand by showing him pictures of his out of town family members. I talk up seeing them, show him their picture, and share a cool fact about them.  Even if Logan doesn’t talk to them during our visit, he is at least familiar with them and knows they will be there and that helps make him a little more comfortable.

Ask for Help

If you are hosting a family gathering. Do not try to take everything on yourself. I am often a person who will take on more than I should. When I do this I often can get overwhelmed, frustrated, and quickly lose sight of the meaning of family gatherings. That isn’t what the holidays are about. If you plan on hosting, provided the turkey or ham and have other family members bring their favorite side dishes and desserts.

Food

Speaking of food. Logan has some sensory issues and food aversions. So if you have a kid like him you know how going to a family gathering for a meal can be interesting. Logan doesn’t do soft or mushy foods. So toss out the mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, pasta, bread, and pretty much every classic holiday meal food item.

If I am hosting, I always make sure that Logan has something he will eat. Holiday gatherings are already stressful for everyone, trying to force or encourage a new food just isn’t going to happen and will be the quickest way to a meltdown. If I am going to another family members house I will either call ahead of time and see what is on the menu and see if there is anything that Logan will eat.

If not, I bring Logan’s food. I never let anyone make me feel bad about this. We have done nutritional therapy, seen a nutritionist, and we have worked hard on some of these food aversions. It’s easier to look at Logan’s plate of chips and say is he going to eat anything else than to actually understand that the textures of soft foods make Logan physically sick. So if Logan eats chicken nuggets, an apple, and chips for a holiday meal, that is perfectly ok.

Safe Places

Safe place for autistic kid

We have a safe place where Logan can retreat to when things become too much for him. There are several family members houses where Logan knows his safety area. These are houses that Logan frequently visits and areas that he feels safe and secure. Some examples are his cousins’ room, basement family room, and an empty guest room.  All of these areas are child proof and Logan is able to move freely in them alone while he regroups or calms down.

Logan is really good about knowing when he needs a break. I use this time to help him self-advocate what he needs. Its ok if your child needs to retreat and feel safe. Sometimes a lot of noise, too many people, and commotion can just be well.. too much.. and that is okay.

I always allow Logan to do what is best for him at family gatherings. I recently took Logan to his great grandfather’s 80th birthday celebration. When things became a little too much, Logan found a place under the table to retreat too, Buzz Lightyear in hand the tablecloth provided the perfect area where he felt secure.

Safety

key with locked door
Safety is a big deal when it comes to family gatherings. The more people and the quicker that Logan can become overwhelmed. This could cause Logan to elope or wander. Wandering is pretty common in autism and leads to some very sad outcomes. At family gatherings, people are coming and going doors are opening and shutting, A child who is trying to elope or wander can quickly take off. Making sure someone has eyes on Logan at all times is a task that gets divided by me and my husband. Safety is also something that can be discussed with all family members so that there are more eyes watching out. Safety is always is first in our book.

While family gathering can be stressful and overwhelming for everyone, there are plenty of ways that as a family we slow down and enjoy the time together. Creating a safe, welcoming, and loving environment is all we truly need, surrounded by people we love the most.

If family gatherings aren’t your thing check out how we spend Christmas in the Hotel, making our own family memories of a lifetime.

Leave a Comment