AT HOME WITH
He’s making a list, checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town.
For many children, the magical night when Santa parks his sleigh on your roof, squeezes down the chimney and unloads a bag full of goodies under your tree is enough motivation to keep their behavior in check the whole year. This isn’t always the case for children impacted by autism spectrum disorders, not because they don’t like presents, treats or even Santa, but because the holidays create more challenges for them than their peers or siblings.
I’m going to invite you to put on your snow boots and slip into the mind of a child with ASD. All children thrive on structure and predictability in their daily routines. Children diagnosed with ASD don’t just thrive with routine; they need it to feel safe and comfortable in their world. Research shows that the greater the predictability in a child impacted by ASD’s schedule, the less likely a tantrum or aberrant behavior is to occur. Now that those snow boots are on nice and tight, let’s take a trip down the mountain that mirrors these children’s holiday season.
“It’s November 1. I am doing okay. I made it through the chaos of Halloween where people pretended to be something they were not in order to obtain large amounts of candy and treats. It wasn’t my favorite day of the year. I was confused. The people I once thought were Max and Michael were dressed up like Spiderman and the Hulk. I’m not sure why this day of the year allows us to get candy for putting on a costume, but I like candy, so I did it.
Fast forward to November 30. Whoa. Lots of people I rarely see asking me about school and friends while eating a large amount of food that I don’t like. I have no idea why we have to do that, but mom said we did, so I tried.
My teacher tells me it’s December and we must start decorating our classroom with stockings and a tree. My family put a tree in our front living room, strung lights all over it and put big round “ornaments” on it. I am confused. I thought trees were supposed to grow outside. We are not following rules, and I am starting to get worried. My teacher has started telling us that we won’t be in school for two weeks. My dad says to make a Christmas list and on Saturday, my grandma is taking me to see a man named Santa who supposedly drives a sleigh pulled in the air by deer. First, I hate when my schedule changes. What will I do all day? Why can’t we stay in school? Next, a Christmas list, what is that? A list of groceries? A spelling list? This just doesn’t make any sense. My mom tells me to make a list of things I like and want Santa to bring. Wait a minute. I thought I had to earn the things I like by being good. Does this mean I don’t have to be good, and I still get toys? I hate feeling confused. Finally, a sleigh without an engine or wings can fly through the air? That doesn’t make sense. These people are just weird. All I know is I don’t like all of these changes to my day, and I am so frustrated that I can’t figure out how to put all of these thoughts into words to tell someone. My mom keeps telling me to calm down and relax, but I can’t. I am worried. I am frustrated. I need life to be in order so I can understand it. Someone please help me figure out how to tell everyone “I. DO. NOT. LIKE. THESE. CHANGES.”
When you are able to better understand the journey a child with ASD takes during the holiday season, you are able to look past labels of naughty and nice and truly understand the difficulty that lies within. Frustration breeds unexpected behavior and a lack of control over words and behavior. If you think about the last time you said something that was not in your character or behaved in a way that was different from your typical disposition, was it because you were frustrated? Misunderstood? Was it because something didn’t go the way you had planned? What would have changed your behavior or verbal response? My experiences of frustration can almost always be remediated with more understanding, explanation and reassurance. My advice to you this holiday season is to take a step back and really think about what it is that may be causing frustration for not only those diagnosed with ASD, but for all family members who are struggling with being labeled as naughty