29 December, 2006

The Frenzied Holiday Season

The message boards and news groups dealing with Autism tend to be filled at this time of the year with messages from parents on how frustrating their holiday celebrations were. Between the rushing around to visit with families, the crowds of people that fill every inch of the shopping centers, and the overall frenzied pace of getting ready for visitors, it is no surprise that many Autistics tend to spend the entire month of December in an over-stimulated state of anxiety. Our household was no exception to this.

Between traveling to my parent’s house, entertaining in our own home, and the simple expectation of opening gifts, Connor was a hand flapping wreck. Unlike pervious years, however, I spent as much effort as I could muster (between my own episodes of hand flapping) to watch what was causing the stimulation and stress for Connor (and myself).

So, here are a few of my observations:

Santa Claus – Beyond the bright red suit and snowy white beard (I think those alone are enough to cause most neurotypical peoples eyes to be over stimulated) we have the threat to behave. In the classic song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” we are warned that we had better watch out, better not cry, and better not pout because Santa is watching us all the time. I am not sure who decided long ago to portrait Santa as a member of George Orwell’s “Big Brother” government from the novel 1984, but I know I find it creepy to think that someone is always watching me, even when I am sleeping, and is going to make a determination of if I am bad or good. Of course in modern child psychology we learn that the old style of discipline through negative reinforcement is no where near as effective as discipline through positive reinforcement.

The lesson learned, for me, is that next year I will have a talk with Santa and instead of warnings about bad behavior and a lack of presents; there will be positive letters of encouragement saying things like “You have been very good about ____, I am looking forward to bringing you a gift!” While this may seem a subtle difference, the way it is received, either by an Autistic or a Neurotypical child is so much more positive and effective.

Scheduling – One of the things that seems to happen in homes around this time of year is that scheduled are thrown out the window as we try to do last minute shopping or realize that we need to do some last minute furniture rearrangement to accommodate more people in our home. Once the schedule is gone, all that is left is a confusing state of anarchy accentuated with frequent surprises. Scheduling surprises are, generally speaking, BAD.

The lesson learned, for me, is that next year, I will have to be extra diligent in scheduling things out and sticking to the schedule. Even making changes to the schedule the day of is better than waiting for the last moment to say “OK, we need to run to the store!” For us, this means we need to be better about keeping a schedule throughout the year… perhaps that can be our New Year’s resolution.

Parties – With the Christmas season comes a myriad of holiday parties and family gatherings. This year we hosted a family gathering of 12 people on Saturday (December 23rd,) traveled 1.5 hours to my parent’s house on Sunday (December 24th) to attend a family gathering of about 30 people, and traveled that same 1.5 hours on Monday (December 25th) to attend another (smaller) family gathering at my parents house. I am not even sure when we found time to sleep. The over the top social interaction, combined with the general noise that accompanies a house full of people causes most people a heightened level of stress… for an Autistic that can not filter out all the sounds, smells, and visual things… it is completely overwhelming.

The lesson learned, for me, is that we need to think about ways to allow the over-stimulated to be removed from everything… a bedroom or even a quiet seat in a corner. On this we did pretty well this year, but there is always room for improvement.

That is about all of the pearls of wisdom I have realized from this year’s holiday season. If I think of more, I will most certainly post it.

I hope that everyone had a good Christmas (if you celebrate it) and I hope you all have a wonderful and safe New Year celebration!


Anonymous JenF said...

I like the change in Santa - we may try this next year as well!

31 December, 2006 06:35  
Anonymous Sandrissimo said...

Hey, good idea about Santa! My kids are 13 and 15 (almost) and they don't worry about Santa's approval anymore.

It is a very stressful time off course, they have exams in school, messing up every schedule, followed by a holyday that destroys any schedule we make, because people always tend to change things in the last minut...

We gave up trying to surprise the kids with gifts. Y hates surprises and doesn't pretend to be happy with something he didn't expect or wanted. So we made arrangements with all the people who would give him a present. He chose the things he wanted and we bought those in advance. In this way I was sure he would like every present en the people who gave the presents were also happy because their gift was appreciated!

Y didn't have a problem waiting for the gifts, knowing it would be what he wished for, took away most of the stress.

We try not to plan too much in advance and always tell Y that something can come up that will mess up his schedule. If he knows that, he seems to have much less problems with it.

Because he's almost 15 we can leave him at home when we go shopping, and he likes that very much.

About the overstimulation, not only autistics have problems with that, having ADHD, I too get overstimulated really fast, because like you, I can't filter out the noise.

For the boys it is rather simple, they bring along their PSP or Nintendo game and while they are playing they seem to be on another planet.

I wish you and your family a very good 2007 and look forward to reading about it often!


31 December, 2006 09:11  

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