Photo: Elizabeth North

Every December as we decorate the tree, I wonder just what Christmas will look like for us. I remember seasons of beauty. Trips to the zoo to see the Christmas Lights, bundling into the car with hot cocoa and marshmallows, driving around to see the lights. I envision my husband’s work party where the kids delighted in the Jolly Fellow joining them as they visited and told them their wish list. I picture sleepy-eyed daddy as he is just as surprised as the children as they open presents. Those memories are treasures. For us moms, some of our best moments are the ones where we see our children in awe of what “Santa” brought and the feeling of satisfaction knowing that you made their day special.

For us, this was my favorite time of year but then, it changed. As I looked through photos of the holidays of the past, I realized that the holidays, since autism was diagnosed in our family, brought with them a sense of stress I had never experienced before. I still remember the Christmas I realized this. As my older children pushed gifts into my youngest daughter’s hands, she stared off into space, left the room, and felt overwhelmed. It was apparent to me that things had to be different so that we could still make memories, good ones, no matter what.

Knowing that the holiday, coming our way, would look different, I still acknowledged that I had four other children that deserved the magic they dreamed of and so I had to choose to do what was right for us. Hopefully these ideas will also help you.

Set Boundaries

The holiday is a season. With our children, we prepare by trying to clear our minds and hearts. We work to do for others. During the beginning of the month, doing small things with great love tends to warm our hearts and often reminds our family of what the season is truly about. Remember, while the holiday season is magical you need to hone in on what is most important, your family. Your children. This means that you may have to set boundaries. Boundaries can be tough. You can feel overwhelmed saying “no” but sometimes saying “no” is the gift you give yourself. If your child struggles outside the home or transitioning from event to event, it’s okay to prioritize.

I also suggest educating friends and family. So often, one of my family members has said that I should just explain it to them or tell them, or do what I need to do for my child. They don’t do this to be dismissive or unkind but instead I believe our families and friends try so hard to include us so we don’t feel left out. They see the challenges and suffering that we face and they want to support us at all times and let’s face it, those invites feel so good. They mean so much but it’s okay to say “no”, remember to thank them for the invite because they too need to know it means something to you even if you can’t attend.

Plan Ahead 

If you have other kids who want to attend an event or stay longer, take two cars. Make an exit plan. Set a small goal. For us, this idea came about with my husband’s work party. While fun for my other children, 110 kids, a jolly giant man, and balloons and crafts was overwhelming after an hour for our daughter so we began to take two cars. I would make a “cameo” and allow her to experience what she could and then duck out, early.

Be Honest with Yourself

While we all want to be together all the time, sometimes, it’s okay to realize it just won’t work. One of the greatest gifts I ever gave myself and my family was saying it’s okay if we can’t take her. She may join us another year and it may be better for the other kids if they don’t have to leave early, witness a meltdown, or feel they are just as important as she is, that our attention can be turned totally to them.

Let Go & Rid Yourself of Expectations

This may be the most important piece of the puzzle. For years, I wanted Christmas to continue as it was before. We would sit around and each person opens a gift, we ooh and ahh over it and celebrate together what the others in the family received. While my kids begged for Seraphina to open her gifts, she just wasn’t ready. Finally, last year I got it. Seraphina came in and out of the room we were in. We opened gifts and when she was ready we gave her a chance. Her beginning to understand the process wasn’t just exciting for me and her father but the children too. They delighted in her joy and when she left to play with her one gift, I was reminded of the beauty of autism. They see, feel, hear, and taste so much more than we ever can imagine. Witnessing her peace with one thing while others long for more is a great reminder that when we have what we need, we don’t need much more.

As we near the holiday season, try to take a deep breath. The holiday may look different but if you take the time to make some minor changes perhaps the holiday will be better than you could have imagined.

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