The Holidays and Extended Family

When K was younger, she considered holiday meal time nothing less than an abomination. First, there was the timing. Many holiday “dinners” were timed smack between lunch and supper, making the phrase “dinner” a source of constant consternation.

Then there was the food, itself. Even when the main holiday meal was around noon, the fact that it was “dinner food” was problematic. “Potatoes and green beans aren’t lunch food!” she’d lecture before asking for pb&j, attempting to shift the meal to 5 o’clock.

But she always dressed for the occasion, outshining her father and me at every turn.

Ah, memories…

This time of year stirs up all sorts of emotions. No matter how old I get, that sentiment never changes. Do you feel the same? For some, family is a wonderful thing. For others, it’s overwhelming. And for others? It can be complicated, to say the least! No matter what your family structure is there are things to keep in mind while living life on the Autism Spectrum, with Asperger’s, as the holiday season is now in full swing. Yes, you really can enjoy this time of year!

Through the years we’ve run the gamut from attending large family gatherings to hosting them to being just the three of us. (Well four, if you include our Yorkie in the mix!) In other words, I’m hoping our experiences yield a few nuggets of advice.

It’s impossible to cover everything in one blog post, so think of this as a few tips that may help you create a holiday season that is better than before. Pick what works for you, move on from what doesn’t. If nothing else, know you aren’t alone as you work to figure out what makes the most sense for you. Just like the cookie cutters that come out from storage in December, we’re all different!

Begin with a few ground rules for your child (even yourself!), and add as needed:

These should include things such as expected behavior as well as boundaries. Using a positive approach is preferable to a stern one. Here is an example:

It is okay to feel bored and restless. It is not okay to point out every shortcoming within eyesight, including the awkward lumps in Aunt Jean’s runny mashed potatoes.

You get the picture…

For those who are overwhelmed by lots of people:

This one will vary with both the type of family you have and where you are getting together (a home, a club, a restaurant). If possible, find a place ahead of time you/your Aspie can retreat to if some down time is needed. Keep in mind that it’s one thing to have “down time” and another to become entirely anti-social. Set a minimum expectation of how long to interact with others. For noisiness, consider earplugs that don’t entirely block out sound, just turn it down a little. This way you can still hear others, but it will make the scene easier to tolerate. (I use these all the time.)

Think about it; you can’t learn to navigate social gatherings if you are always in a separate room from everyone else, can you? We owe it to our child(ren) and ourselves to push ourselves to grow. This includes choosing to interact with others during this time of year, in addition to accepting changes in routines.

For those who are traveling and staying overnight:

We’ve done the “stay with relatives” and “check in to a hotel” bits. Personally, our Aspie did better when we stayed at a hotel. Doing so meant she knew she’d have much needed downtime once we said our good-byes for the evening. Still, the reality is it may cut deeply into the vacation budget, and the first time you try this, family may be a bit upset. Staying in a hotel may not be an option for you, either. If that is the case, be sure to understand what the “house rules” are where you are going, spell them out for the kids, and respect them.

No matter where you stay, packing a few special things can make traveling more comfortable, too. This could include bringing your own pillows from home, a few tried and true snacks that travel well, plus things that will allow you (your kids) to be entertained, if need be.

For those who are hosting:

Take the suggestions above and flip them. Think of how things will change in your home when company is here. Decide if you need to set any ground rules, boundaries, etc. For example, if cousins are coming, have a few things around they can interact with, but be sure to tuck away anything that is super special. There is nothing worse than having a little cousin give a hair trim to a prized stuffed animal or doll! (Ok, maybe there is, but you get it, right?)

If you are having overnight guests, be clear about who is sleeping where ahead of time as that is not a nice thing to spring on anyone at the last minute. Especially to someone with Asperger’s!

In short, try to make it as comfortable for your guests as you’d like it to be for your own family and everyone will feel welcome!

Psst… Want to know if we prefer visiting or hosting?

For us, we love hosting holiday events. This is probably our favorite way to spend the Season of Extended Family! Think about it for a moment…

  • We have influence over the time for the meal
  • We get to set most, if not all, of the menu (truth time: I do ask my sisters for their input and gladly take it!)
  • We don’t have to travel
  • We sleep in our own beds
  • We are in our own “element,” which is huge when you live life on the Autism Spectrum

Does it sound selfish? Not really. Someone has to host, right? And this lessens the stress on our Aspie, too! It also helps that my extended family is pretty flexible with this sort of thing.

For those who have family who “don’t get it”:

Know you are not alone. It has taken time for some of our extended family to finally “get it,” while there are others who just…don’t. As my sister recently said, “You can’t change how people respond – only how you react/deal.” Dealing with the reality of being misunderstood amongst family does get easier (number?) with time, but it is still hard. There are online groups if you feel the need to talk to others and don’t know where to start. Sometimes, there are local parent groups that are good, too. As for us, the three of us have a venting session when alone, but choose to cap that time so we don’t go too deep down that black hole. It helps. For me? A good, long walk is brilliant. Find something healthy that works for you and do it.

“You can’t change how people respond – only how you react/deal.”

Here are some bonus tips!:

You likely have your own ideas that work great, but here are a few suggestions for those who need a spark. RULE: Pick no more than three things to work on during any one event:

  • Choose to spend ten minutes longer than usual around family before ducking out to that quiet spot, book, or game. Repeat.
  • Choose not to look at the clock at all. Ignore the changes in meal times but have a small snack handy if needed.
  • Tell yourself any objectionable food offerings, such as that unidentifiable casserole with lots of lumps and a mysterious odor, are temporary. You’ll be back to your personal eating routine soon. No need to diss the dish – you can politely pass it on to someone else to enjoy.
  • If you are hosting someone with Asperger’s, choose to have at least one food they love on the table.
  • If you are reading this for your Aspie, try to hook her up with a relative who will ask about her Special Interests. Sometimes, having someone show an interest in what makes us happy can make the event better.
  • Use positive self-talk. Tell yourself (or your Aspie) you are smart, capable, unique (in a GOOD way), interesting and any other positive attributes you wish! It really does help. Remember, those who are unkind to you are often mirroring what they think of themselves.
  • Don’t worry about what may happen. If it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t happened at all. Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

“Don’t worry about what may happen. If it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t happened at all. Breathe. Relax. Breathe. Enjoy the small moments.”

When you live life with Asperger’s, this time of year can be a bit much. But it can also be just fine! It’s like anything else in life; we each find enjoyment in different things. Search out what makes this time of year enjoyable for you and focus on that. Keep a positive attitude about everything else, plan the best you can and it will all work out just fine.

Although we do get together with family during the holidays, we spend Christmas Day with just the three of us. (Ok, four. Reese is part of the family; he just happens to live life on four legs instead of two.) We did end up moving “Christmas Dinner” to dinner time. Honestly, it’s a welcome change. It allows for a more relaxing Christmas Day. Sometimes, you do need to stop and listen to your kid, and be open to change, too! Sometimes, they do know best.

Wishing you all the best,

   – Julie

Want to share an idea that works for you during the holidays? Or have a question? Leave a comment below.

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