What I Wish I Knew During My First Holidays as an Autism Parent

Festive attire, old recipes, family gatherings, thoughtful gifts, sparkly decorations.

Noreen son with Elsa

Noreen’s son with Elsa.

The traditions that help make the holidays such a special time of year can create angst for families of kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

This year, two moms of patients at our Marcus Autism Center set out to help make the holidays more enjoyable for fellow ASD parents, especially those of the newly diagnosed.

Mandy Finch has an 8-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter; both were diagnosed with ASD around 18 months of age.

Mandy Santa pics

Mandy’s kids with Santa.

Noreen Reading’s 7-year old son was diagnosed a few months before his fifth birthday.

Here are 10 things Mandy and Noreen wish they’d known during their first holiday season as the parent of a child with ASD.

  1. Don’t compare yourself to moms on Facebook or Pinterest. Do what works for your family and what you have time to do. Your child will be able to fully enjoy your time together if you are not miles away in your head, wondering whether or not you should have made an Advent calendar with 24 tiny gifts to unwrap!
  1. Choose events will smaller crowds and shorter lines. Plan to spend only an hour at a holiday event.
  1. Don’t feel obligated to attend every holiday party or event. Prepare your child for each event by being a pro at anticipation. Find out as much about the event as you can, such as details about the food, setting and dress code, and then come up with an alternate plan or accommodation that might make things go smoother. For instance, if your Aunt Judy is serving a mysterious casserole and not much else, either have your child eat right before you arrive, or pack a simple lunch that he/she can eat at the table with everyone else.
  1. Your child might not be into Christmas as much as you are. Take it with a grain of salt.
  1. If it’s a dressy event and you know your child will have trouble wearing less comfortable clothes, start preparing for it beforehand with encouraging words such as, “We’re going to a fancy party. Everyone will have their dresses and shiny shoes on. These aren’t your favorite, but we can take them off right after we leave.” If it’s going to be a noisy indoor party, ask the host if there is somewhere quiet your child can retreat to if necessary. Thinking ahead and communicating with the host may seem excessive, but it really will make things go smoother and ensure a more successful event for everyone involved.
  1. Invite family members to your home for Christmas to avoid visiting multiple locations in one day.
  1. If you know your child has his or her mind set on a particular gift that they are not actually going to get, let them know ahead of time. Tell them,“You won’t get an iPad/game system/entire collection of Ninjago minifigures from 2011-present, etc., but you are going to get a lot of other great gifts that you will like.” That way you reduce the chance of unexpected disappointment resulting in a Christmas morning ensuing meltdown.
  1. Try not to be stressed with the pressures of the holidays. Take time to relax and enjoy being together.
  1. If you want to take pictures with Santa, look up locations and allotted times for kids with special needs. Avoid going to a malls where there are big crowds.
  1. If a relative wants gift ideas for your child, suggest memberships or tickets to local events rather than toys.