My six-year-old son with ASD has made a lot of progress since he was diagnosed two years ago but he still struggles with a variety of issues. My husband and I both come from large families and with the holidays looming, we are beginning to dread family events. Our family loves our son but they also feel free to tell him how to behave and us how to parent. We end up feeling hurt and isolated. How can we make holidays enjoyable for everyone?
-Fearful Family Gal
While you are lucky to have a family that cares about your son, the challenge is also to help them understand your son and his needs. I think there are two strategies that you will need to pursue. The first is to prepare in advance so that both you and your son have options when he gets overwhelmed, and the second is to provide information to the family so that they can intervene in a helpful way when necessary.
Writing brief stories, with or without pictures, that explain to your son where he will be going, who will be there, what will happen, and what he is expected to do can be very helpful. Carol Gray's work on "Social Stories" is helpful in explaining how to do this. Be sure that you include options for your son to communicate if he is overwhelmed. Ideally you will have an "escape strategy" for him such as a designated quiet room and some favorite comfort items. Be realistic about how much interaction your son can handle and bring enough solitary activities to keep him happy and busy when he has had enough of other people. You might want to bring some familiar foods as well if food is an issue for him.
Preparing your family might start with a general letter to everyone briefly explaining what you have learned about ASD in the past two years and the strategies you are using to teach your son skills. Reassure your relatives that you share their goal of teaching him how to act in an appropriate way, but that you have learned that he will need time and extra instruction to learn this. Describe what they can expect from your son and what problems might arise. Then explain your strategy for dealing with the issues that might arise; you might even want to cite some "authorities", saying something like: "his teachers have taught us that kids with ASD learn best when ...". Finally, give one or two clear ideas for how the relatives can interact with your son in a supportive and fun way. If there are other children at the events, you might also offer to talk with them about autism and help them become play coaches for him at the family gatherings. Many children like the idea of being in a teaching or helping role.
If you think a particular event will be too much for your son, it may be worth trying to find someone who can care for him at home so that he does not have to attend the entire event. You can explain to your family that you want him to experience his family as a source of fun and not a source of stress, so you are choosing only to bring him to events that he is ready to cope with.
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