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Stacking the Deck for Family Holidays

By Dan Coulter

It’s family holiday gatherings season.

So, do you feel anticipation or anxiety?

If you have a child with an autism spectrum disorder, you might feel a bit of both.

My wife and I are veterans of years of extended family gatherings with our son who has Asperger Syndrome. We’ve learned that the proper preparation is a great insurance policy toward making the gathering a positive experience for everyone.

First, size up the situation realistically. What will your family event be like? How is your son or daughter with an ASD likely to react in that environment? What can you do to influence the environment and prepare your child?

Let’s say you have a son named Bill who has Asperger Syndrome.

If you’re going to be seeing family who doesn’t often interact with Bill, consider writing a letter or email to those who will attend. Tell them you want to help ensure that everyone has a good time, so you want to explain that, because Bill has Asperger Syndrome, he may act or react a bit differently than they’re used to.

The letter should be positive. It should not tell people how they have to act to accommodate Bill. It should focus on the nice experience everyone can have if family members make some adjustments to help Bill fit in.

For example, Bill loves studying weather, has learned a lot about weather, and is always eager to talk about weather. You can write that it would be great if you could work with the others who will attend the gathering to plan some games or activities or decorations that relate to weather. And explain that if Bill goes on a bit too long about weather, it’s O.K. to say, “I’m really impressed with all you know about weather, Bill, but I’m not as interested in it as you are, and I’d like to talk about something else now.”

The key is to help others understand how Bill is likely to act and react, and give them suggestions on interacting with Bill that will help keep things positive. If Bill is likely to exhibit behaviors that could be interpreted as rude or tactless, explain that he doesn’t mean to offend, it’s just the way his brain processes information. Be honest, but upbeat. Ask parents to share appropriate information about being patient with Bill with their children.

Consider past experience to determine how closely you, or someone else who knows what to expect, needs to supervise Bill in this environment. You may need to limit your stay or identify a quiet place where Bill can be by himself with a book or a game or a DVD if the situation becomes overwhelming for him.

In your letter, you can also inquire about the other children who will attend and ask if there’s anything special the group might plan or do for them. After all, you want the visit to be special for everyone.

Finally, talk with Bill about what to expect and help him practice the social skills you want him to use. The more Bill knows about the gathering in advance and how to deal with it, the more confident and comfortable he’s likely to be.

You might choose to write a social story describing the upcoming event. My wife once wrote a “news story” about our niece’s wedding and read it to our son in the car as we traveled to another state for the ceremony. Consider your child’s history as you plan your briefing. You may decide to provide less detail if your child is very literal minded and gets upset when things don’t turn out exactly the way he or she expects they will.

A lot of families (ours included) have attended events simply hoping for the best. But we’ve learned that hope is more realistic if you stack the deck. Where extended family gatherings are concerned, you may need to mark it, stack it, and stick a few cards up your sleeve.

But everybody wins.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVD: “MANNERS FOR THE REAL WORLD: Basic Social Skills,” which has just been revised and re-released with English and Spanish subtitles. You’ll find more articles and information on his website at:

Copyright 2008 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used by Permission

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