How I took Christmas back for my son on the autism spectrum
Geege Taylor is an author and an autism advocate who is passionate about challenging the negative perceptions of those living with disabilities. She lives in Georgia with her 16-year-old son with autism, Ainsworth, her 21 year old daughter and her pooch, Oliver. To follow their journey, follow her on Instagram.
Here’s a familiar formula: Autism + Christmas = Nightmare. For ten years, I dreaded Christmas...autism seemed to take over. My son, Ainsworth, is nonverbal and very severe on the spectrum, so taking our show on the road was nothing but pure stress for me. The tension started the moment that we arrived at the children’s godparents’ house. I had to wrestle with Ains to get him out of the car, then physically drag him into their house, which was gorgeously appointed with fine antiques and breakable objects everywhere. And of course, there were no swings, hammocks, therapy balls or trampolines.The yard was not fenced in, and even worse, there wasn’t a non-stop reel of trippy Baby Einstein videos playing. Ains always walked in and conducted a survey of the place, quickly realizing that there was nothing he liked on the premises, so he’d try to leave. This was about the time that mama needed a glass of wine, but alas, that was not an option, as I was on autism duty. At that point, I’d grab my bag of tricks. (I came armed with a backpack of emergency supplies: meds, stim toys, clothes, his special dinner, etc.) For these occasions, I’d pull out the big guns...a candy bar, Mardi-Gras beads, a new toy...anything that would pacify him until the meal was served. I stayed on edge the entire time, trying to manage some small talk while Ains swam around on the floor with his beads, licking the legs of the furniture, and making loud “eeeeeehhhh” noises, which made it impossible to hear the conversation.
When the meal was served, the second wave of panic kicked in. I knew that I only had about five minutes to eat, as Ains would woof down his special meal, then try to eat from other people’s plates, and maybe do a bit of voluntary regurgitation as a big finish. He would then jump up and run away from the table--most likely dragging the table cloth, spilling a drink, or breaking a few dishes along the way. Every holiday, the childrens’ sweet godfather, Big E, offered to watch Ains run around outside so that I could eat with the family. I always felt guilty, insisting that I be the one to miss the meal, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I joined him anyway, and together we would sit by the driveway, bundled up in the cold, eating Christmas dinner on our laps, watching little Ains rub on the bricks. Even though it was stressful, I must admit that my one-on-one Christmas meals with that precious man are some of my fondest memories. My family would typically leave within 60 minutes of our arrival. And that was our Christmas.
After ten years, I was over it. I decided to switch gears and host all holidays at my house... knowing that I was signing up for a ton of work, knowing that everyone may not come, knowing that I might hurt someone’s feelings, and knowing that I barely had the energy to keep up with my son on a good day, much less host a huge holiday meal. But I did it anyway, and it was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.
I took Christmas (and every other holiday) back, and did it on my own terms. It turned out that the godparents were completely understanding. My sister and parents were forced to juggle two Christmas meals, but that was far less stressful for them than the stress that I had to endure taking our crazy show on the road.
I decided to re-invent the way we that approached Christmas, by making it a collaborative effort: I send my daughter to pick up a smoked turkey and a few gallons of Chick-fil-A sweet tea and I farm everything else out to my lovely guests...casseroles, stuffing, pies, wine...everything. I’ve told them to never show up at my house with only a bowl of cranberry sauce and expect that I’m going to entertain their family of five all night! All that I am left to do is make one autism-friendly kind of dish and set the table. This system works beautifully and everyone is happy to help.
How do I have the time to make that dish and set the table, you ask? There’s obviously no sitters available on holidays, so I give my son the world’s longest bubble bath, adding hot water every twenty minutes (I know you autism parents already know this trick). When that gets boring, I have my mother take Ains on an hour-long milkshake drive (there’s always some place open where you can drive through and find a shake). It’s an easy babysitting gig for a grandparent, and it gives my son the vestibular motion that he craves to chillax before dinner. I also save his best Christmas gifts to give him just before our guests arrive to ensure that he will be happy. (As a side note, I adopt my Jewish friends’ customs for the entire three week Christmas break and celebrate Hanukkah-style, giving Ains a Christmas gift every day to keep him busy and entertained.) After dinner, I have the children set up a sensory-friendly movie situation...they drag bean bags, pillows, and comforters into the den, find ELF on Netflix, turn the lights out, turn the sound down, and eat popcorn sprinkled with red and green M&M’s. And there you go, a $4 way to entertain a house full of picky, neuro-diverse children.
I now look forward to the holidays again, like I did before autism came into our lives. My son is no longer trying to escape an unfamiliar house. If he gets overwhelmed, he goes to his room to swing. When he’s tired, he goes off to bed and I’m able to continue to visit with my family. No more sitting outside in the cold, eating Christmas dinner, wanting to cry. As autism parents, we are constantly looking for ways to accommodate our children's’ needs. The holidays should be no exception. Take your Christmas back. Enjoy yourself again. It may not be the way that you had once envisioned your holiday, but life is like that. Just roll with it, pour a glass of wine, and relax (ish).