Thinking Differently, Holiday Style

by Wendy Eagan
November 17th, 2013
Wendy Eagan explains the successes of thinking differently during the holiday season.

Halloween has come and gone, Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and Christmas is coming full steam ahead.  When I was a kid, for Halloween, my parents would invite the neighborhood to a party at our house, then pile all the kids into the back of our pickup and go trick-or-treating.  Thanksgiving Day we went to my maternal grandparents’ house for a huge meal and family time.  Christmas Eve we went to my paternal grandparents’ house, and Christmas Day was at our house so my sister and I could enjoy our gifts from Santa.  I always assumed that when I became a parent, holiday celebrations would be similar to the ones I had as a child with my family.

matthieuOf course, life doesn’t always give us what we expect.

My son Matthieu is ten years old, diagnosed with Autism and ADHD, and he also has some sensory difficulties. From an early age, family gatherings were difficult for him. Instead of playing video games with the other kids, he wanted to open and close drawers and cabinet doors, or run up and down the stairs, or try to get on the computers in his grandfather’s office.  My two wonderful sisters-in-law would tag team keeping him amused so my husband and I could sit at the table and eat, but the rest of the visit was spent trying to keep him from breaking things or slamming doors or escaping out the front or back door.  We would take two cars so that I could leave early with Matthieu and leave my husband to visit with his family.  I usually left these gatherings and cried all the way home, feeling like a complete failure as a parent.  Everyone else’s kids behaved, why didn’t mine?

When we got his diagnosis, it all made more sense. He wasn’t a bad kid at all; he was a child suffering from sensory overload related to autism.  The noises, blinking lights, and people movement in a crowded house were overwhelming for him.  As I grew to understand more about autism and the sensory issues that often accompany it, I resolved to put Matthieu first when making our holiday plans, whether it meant arriving later, bringing our own food, or not participating at all.

I have to confess, I still feel a little twinge when I see parents taking their kids trick-or-treating, or watch one of those smarmy “perfect Christmas” commercials that inundate the airwaves this time of year, but we’ve adapted and created traditions of our own.  Since Matthieu doesn’t eat candy, he has no interest in Halloween, so he and I go out to dinner and to the Outlet Mall.  Since he doesn’t like the crowds and noise surrounding most New Year’s Eve parties, we stay overnight at a local hotel and let him enjoy some quality swim time. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, we still go to family gatherings, but we bring foods that he will eat, make sure he has his iPad, arrange for a quiet place that he can go if he needs to unwind, and continue to take two cars in case he needs to make an early exit. We’ve also taught him to recognize when he is becoming overwhelmed, and to tell us “I need a break” or “I need to leave.”  As a result, he has been able to tolerate longer visits with family.

Our holiday plans might seem unusual, but I believe our new traditions far outshine the old. Giving my son ownership in choosing our activities allows him to be a calm, happy participant in whatever festivities we attend.