Many people consider autism to be a condition that affects just the individual child. But the reality is that autism can have an effect on the entire family. It can impact the choices they make to attend family holiday gatherings — and, in some cases, whether they will even be invited. By learning how to support the family impacted by autism, you can make a difference this holiday season, and in the future, too.
“It’s always wonderful if we can practice acceptance over judgment and the first step is to simply extend an invitation to the family of a child with autism,” suggests Jamie McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and the executive director with Healing Haven, the Madison Heights ABA therapy center for kids and teens with autism and other developmental needs.
Instead of relaxing and family-focused, the holiday season can be the most stressful time of the year for all families, and especially for the family with a child with autism. “Families of kids with autism can really feel alone this time of year,” McGillivary says. “The challenges of doing something new and novel can be hard for these kids, and in turn tough for their families. As such, some families find that over time, the holiday party invitations become few and far between.”
This holiday season — and throughout the year, too — learn how to support the family in your life that is impacted by autism. “You can make all the difference between a difficult experience and the true meaning of the holiday,” McGillivary says. Here are some suggestions for how to do just that.
Learn more about autism
Each child with autism is an individual with likes and dislikes, just like every other child. But there are certain characteristics that many children with autism share, so it makes sense to build a foundation of understanding about the autism spectrum. Your willingness to learn more about autism will make you a better family member and a better member of the wider community, too.
The family member or neighbor who commits to building a better understanding can become an ally to the family to better support their loved ones, McGillivary explains. “You can show them that you recognize what they are experiencing as they raise their child with autism.”
A great resource for families is the Autism Alliance of Michigan, McGillivary says. In addition to an information-rich website, the nonprofit organization has MiNavigator, a free resource staffed by autism specialists who can answer questions and provide information to families across Michigan.
Ask specific questions
Recognize that no two kids with autism are exactly alike. In addition to learning the basics, reach out to the family to find out more about their child. “Beyond educating yourself on the basics of autism, go to the family to get specifics. Ask how you can best communicate with their child. Learn how they might respond to hugs. You may find that you will need to lose your expectations and simply follow the child’s lead,” McGillivary says.
Ask about any dietary issues and find out how you can accommodate them. Sometimes simple changes can make foods accessible for all, or you can ask about any additional items that would be welcome on the menu. Never be afraid to ask, says McGillivary.
If you’re exchanging gifts, find out what special interests the child might have and be ready to pursue presents that may seem to be outside the box. It’s always appropriate to ask about preferences — and don’t balk if the honest answer is something not traditional as many children with autism have unique interests.
“Sometimes the box itself is the best gift. It’s not always about what you give but the fact that you are opening your home and welcoming the family for social interactions. That’s what really matters,” she adds.
Create a friendly and welcoming environment
Taking common-sense measures to make your home a more welcoming place for a child with autism can ease a parent’s anxiety. Ask the family if there are any specific things you can do or expect when you welcome them to your home.
If possible, extend the opportunity to visit your home before the big gathering, so the family can help their child become familiar with the feel of your home. If you plan to have many guests, consider emailing photos of attendees so the child can know who and what to expect. Provide as much information as you can so the parents can prepare their child well before the event.
For many kids, autism affects their ability to process sensory input. Create a quiet place in your home where the child can retreat if the gathering becomes overwhelming. This can be a separate room, or just a quiet corner of your home. “You can put soft pillows in the room and have calming music and lowered lights, if possible,” McGillivary suggests. Also encourage the family to bring any favored items that will help their child become calm if they get overwhelmed.
Recognize that the family may not be able to stay at the event for a prolonged period of time — and the child’s parents may wish to end the experience on a positive note — so don’t take it personally if they leave after just an hour at your home. The most important thing is that you have set the stage for future experiences and helped this family and child recognize that they can successfully attend family or neighborhood gatherings — especially when their host takes the time to create a welcoming atmosphere.
“When you can encourage the family to just come as they are and drop all of your own expectations, you’re providing an environment of acceptance with no judgment. That’s freeing,” McGillivary says. “The more often you do that, the longer the visits will last and the more enjoyable they will become as the child and parents figure out they are in a safe environment where they can be themselves.”
Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique services for kids and teens at thehealinghaven.net.