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Putting Fun Into Family Holiday Gatherings

By Dan Coulter

Holidays are all about expectations. For adults, holidays tend to bring back memories of the way things were when we were kids – or at least the way we remember them. We often follow traditions because we expect them to help us recapture the magic we felt and pass it on to our kids.

But unrealistic expectations can actually drain the fun from holidays, especially for kids on the autism spectrum. To make holidays fun for kids, we have to be able to see things through their eyes.

Some of my great childhood memories involve holidays. One of my best Christmas memories was getting my first two-wheel bike. Wow. My folks got it so right. They were heroes. It wasn’t just the bike, it was having my dad help me learn to ride and having my folks watch and encourage me as I pedaled up and down the cul-de-sac in front of our house. I can still feel that sense of celebration.

One of my other vivid childhood memories involves another Christmas. My dad bought me an electric train, but wouldn’t let me play with it because it plugged into the wall and I was too young. I have no idea what made my dad expect that I would get a kick out of watching him play with “my” train. I can still feel the frustration.

It’s hard enough to get holidays right with neurotypical kids. Planning a great time for families who have kids on the autism spectrum can take even more thought. But thoughtful planning can be the difference between fun times and a boatload of stress.

I think most holiday stress involves unrealistic expectations. If we set unrealistic goals, or try to meet unrealistic goals set by others, we’re just setting ourselves and others up for disappointment.

Which brings us to one of the biggest holiday challenges: extended family gatherings. You’re often getting together with people who you rarely see and who may not understand your child’s challenges, behaviors and needs.

Before you decide to decline a family invitation because the event is just too much trouble, consider doing some pre-emptive holiday planning. I’m talking about planning that takes into account the capabilities, interests and challenges of every family member who’ll attend the gathering.

This sort of planning shows that you’re not just asking everyone to accommodate your child. You’re also thinking about them and their kids. As soon as you’re aware a family gathering is being planned, volunteer to help. Be up front about your motives. You want to help make the event something that everyone involved will enjoy and remember. Consider circulating a survey to every family to gather information. What is each family member interested in? What activities do they enjoy? What activities bore them? What foods to they like and dislike? Does anyone have any allergies? Do they have special needs? Get someone in each family to try and see the event through the eyes of each person who will attend. You’re especially interested in kids, but collect the parents’ preferences too. If there was a similar family gathering last year, ask what folks liked and didn’t like.

Professional meeting planners depend on these sorts of surveys to help ensure their meetings are successful. You can take a page from their book. And the survey doesn’t have to be piece of paper. You can do it by email or just collect information over the phone.

Use the input from the survey and work with the party’s hosts to design an event around the people who will be there. (You may want to consider offering to host future events to give yourself more control.) Consider modifying existing traditions or establish new traditions to craft some aspect of the get-together to appeal to each person. It can make someone feel special to see that you’ve provided their favorite food or dessert, or for a child to see her favorite cartoon character among the decorations. Maybe you can have some of the kids bring their favorite board games. Trips to a zoo or local science museum or a sporting event can be fun. One Thanksgiving our extended family participated in a charity fun run, which was really a walk. It was called the Turkey Trot and, for the kids, it was sort of like being in a parade.

There may be times when the kids split off by age or interest and do different activities. For several years I’d write goofy plays with parts for all the cousins and they’d perform them for the adults. A few adults had cameo parts. One play was a take-off on Cinderella. The two wicked step-sisters were named Nauseanna and Euthanasia. Our cast of cousins for these plays dwindled as the years went on, as the older kids got too “cool” to perform. But no matter who acted and who watched, it was always big fun.

There may be a time when a child on the spectrum needs to be alone for a while. That’s okay. But design activities to be inclusive and have the kids interact with each other as much as possible. Video games where kids can play together or take turns are better than “shut yourself off in your own world” games. Always provide adult supervision where it’s needed.

It’s good to follow this maxim for a child on the spectrum: prepare your child for the world and prepare the world for your child. Talk to your kids before the event and let them know what’s expected of them. Keep those expectations within the limits of their abilities. As far as preparing the world for your child, you need to determine what to tell the other adults who’ll be there about your child’s strengths and challenges. You may want them to tell their kids about your child’s behaviors, what to expect and the best ways to react.

For example, we recently interviewed several families in connection with an upcoming video for siblings of children on the autism spectrum. One had a little boy who would only eat a narrow range of foods. Another had a young girl who wouldn’t eat at a table, but ate her meals from a tray on the floor in front of the television.

If everyone knows beforehand that Cousin Joey is going to eat French fries for Thanksgiving dinner and that Cousin Mary is going to eat her turkey in front of the television, these “differences” can just become part of what’s normal at a meal in this extended family. Knowing what to expect and why also makes it more likely that the kids involved will be accepting of Joey at the table — or perhaps even choose to sit and eat with Mary in the den with the TV.

The more adults and older children treat “different” behaviors as nothing to get upset or worked up about, the more likely it is that little tykes will follow suit. And, of course, you can identify potential conflicts and make arrangements to mitigate them. If you know young Cousin Butch has issues of his own and tends to bully others, you can ensure there will always be an adult present to supervise group activities and head off problems.

Of course, you never want to put your child into a situation where the deck is stacked against him and everything points to a bad experience. But if you can increase the odds of a good experience, an event may look more attractive.

Many children are much more accommodating of kids on the spectrum if they just know something about what’s going on. A little preparation can be good insurance against kids teasing or ignoring someone acting different. And, of course, sometimes family members are just naturally nice.

I remember seeing my son, who has Asperger Syndrome, dancing with some of his cousins at a family wedding. It was great to see how gracious and accepting they were, and how much fun my son was having.

Finding ways to make family events a positive experience for everyone can help a child on the spectrum form lasting relationships. Not every cousin may be a candidate to be your child’s playmate for a day or a friend for life, but having fun together gives those bonds a chance to form.

Great family gatherings aren’t just magic for a day. They give kids on the spectrum an opportunity to be with people who have a built-in reason to see past their challenges, celebrate their strengths, and provide positive encouragement throughout their lives.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR — Dan Coulter is the writer/producer of a series of videos, titled “Intricate Minds,” that help students understand and accept classmates with Asperger Syndrome and autism. You can find more articles on his website:

Copyright 2006 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission

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