Fredericksburg Families

Amy Umble writes about family issues and kid-friendly events.

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Surviving the holidays with autism

Once upon a time, I loved Christmas. I loved the baking. The shopping. Even the standing out in the cold while hunting for the perfect tree.

The spirit of goodwill just enveloped me like a  comfortable winter coat, making everything seem just a little bit more enchanting.

And when I had two sons in two years, I knew that Christmas would grow even more magical. I couldn’t wait to experience the holiday through their eyes–the anticipation of the advent calendar, the miracles of the Nativity story, the mystery of presents appearing under the tree.

I couldn’t wait until the smell of peanut butter cookies, baked according to my great grandmother’s recipe, would signal the start of the holiday season. Until the songs about Jesus’ birth rang through our house and reminded us of our faith. Until the whisper of wrapping paper signaled two brothers trying to sneak a peek at their gifts, just as my own brother and I had done years ago.

And then autism entered our family.

One year, my oldest son was diagnosed with severe to moderate autism. The next, his brother was.

At first, we were determined that this wouldn’t make much difference in our lives.

But it did. Especially at Christmas.

Soon, the holiday wasn’t marked with carols. Or exclamations of joy. My oldest son’s cries became the soundtrack of Christmas. He sobbed through the whole holiday season. He screamed at family parties. Wept at presents. Sniffled at his stocking.

After a while, I dreaded Christmas. That magical “coat” now felt like a straight jacket.

I began to realize how stressful our holidays were. Living near both families, my husband and I were crisscrossing the area from one party to another. They all involved several relatives–many of whom my son only saw once or twice each year. And they involved presents, something he wasn’t so fond of.  They were loud, noisy and busy. I found them over-stimulating. I couldn’t imagine what these gatherings were like for him.

And so I started paring down our Christmas. First, we decided that we would visit just one relative’s house each day. This wasn’t easy. Both of our families celebrated on Christmas Eve. Back-to-back dinners–and the mad dash between homes–had become tradition.

I also instituted a new “rule”–Xander didn’t have to open presents if he didn’t want to. Again, relatives were disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to see him unwrap the gifts they had lovingly selected.

We also made smaller changes: I put out fewer decorations. I decorated the tree more slowly–and with help from both boys. We read a social story about the holidays–about decorating trees, seeing Santa, visiting relatives and unwrapping presents.

If Xander wanted to leave a family party and go hang out by himself, that would be OK. No one would go and drag him back to the party. He has since spent many a family gathering napping in his Grandma’s bed.

Christmas morning became very low-key. If Xander wanted to look in his stocking, that was fine. Santa always left a candy bar sticking out of the top as incentive. But if he just wanted to grab that candy bar and ignore his stocking, that was OK too.

We cut back on presents too. The boys would get one gift from Mom and Dad and one from Santa. (They also received plenty of presents from their relatives.)

And we got rid of Santa. I no longer dragged the boys to the mall to the see the jolly man. We never mentioned him.

Little by little, the holiday magic returned. Christmas became low-key, and a little bit boring, I admit. But it was peaceful. And the boys were happy.

To this day, I’ve never had a child run squealing in the room, delighted to see the presents under the tree. The boys don’t seem to care one way or another if we have a decorated tree. And we’ve never hosted a Christmas party.

But we no longer ring in the holidays with crying.

Autism Speaks offers some additional tips for surviving the holidays with autism:

  • Plan ahead whenever possible. Compile a list of activities that can help your child fill his or her time wherever you go.
  • Use rehearsal and role play to give children practice ahead of time in dealing with new social situations, or work together to write a “social story” that incorporates all the elements of an upcoming event or visit to better prepare them for that situation.
  • If you are going to visit family or friends, make sure there is a quiet, calm place for retreat.
  • Keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or distress, including an increase in behaviors such as humming or rocking – they may indicate it’s time for a break.
  • Engage kids with autism in repetitive activities such as stringing popcorn for trimming the tree.
  • Practice unwrapping gifts ahead of time, which will help a child with autism learn the understanding and the meaning of gifts.
  • Take toys and other gifts out of the box before wrapping them. It is more fun and less frustrating if a child with autism can open the gift and play with it immediately.
  • Try to relax and have a good time. If you are tense your child may sense that something isn’t right.
  • Get a list of gift ideas for relatives from your child’s teacher and therapists.
  • Don’t shield your child from the extended family. Family members need to understand the challenges you face.
  • Take pictures when you and your child trim the tree, visit relatives, open gifts, etc. Make a book about your holiday by gluing the pictures onto construction paper, writing a short sentence under each picture, and stapling the pages together. When someone asks your child a question regarding the holidays, your child can use the book as a visual cue to help tell about the things he or she did.



    Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing. My son has autism, but thankfully loves the season and Santa. Our challenge is cub scout pack meeting. :) 

  • Brooke Wanner Lucas

    Thanks for writing this article.  My daughter has never engaged at Christmas but I am blessed that she does not meltdown either!

  • FLtoVA

    Wow- what a wonderful article. I admire the patience and creativity of so many parents whose children have autism. Christmas has gotten so hectic and the fact that you’ve taken the “chaos” out of your season and achieved a “peace” for your boys is really what the season is about – to me at least. Merry christmas to you and your family.

  • Matt Sealy

    Wonderful. It is hard but you are doing a great job making the best out of it. I have many similar stories. Each day is getting better and better for us too, hopefully it continues for everyone that has autism in their lives. God bless you and yours.

  • Ruth Taylor

    Such a wonderful article.  I’m so happy to see stories like this.  Bless you and your family!!!

  • Charles Olson

    Thank you for this wonderful article. My son is autistic and I understand your plight. Just remember to keep engaging them and eventually they will come around. Don’t give up and always be proud of them. They are our special angels and need as much help as we can give them.