This post was written by our old friend Dr. Erica R. Holding for the Grandparent Autism Network. Dr. Holding has a Ph.D. in Psychology and a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral level and founder of Avita Nova, which provides early diagnosis and ABA therapy for children and parent training and support. This article is based on her many years of working with families affected by autism.
When you have a grandchild with autism, the holiday season can present some extra challenges for your family. With careful planning your family can make the holiday season warm and happy for everyone.
If you don’t get to see your grandchild regularly, it is important to remember to have realistic expectations for your time together. Before the visit, call your son or daughter to ask if there is anything to do or have on hand to make the visit more enjoyable for your grandchild. You can have favorite toys, food and videos ready and plan to go to places that they like to visit.
Grandparents often express fear and anxiety about how to interact with their grandchildren. You may feel rejected because you expect welcoming big hugs and kisses and may feel frustrated and unloved if that does not happen. Your grandchild may have sensory issues that make it overwhelming and even painful for them to be touched or hugged. They may not have the skills yet to know what to do or how to respond or they may just be learning these skills, but shut down around new people or in new situations. The most important thing is to not take this personally. They are not rejecting you. A high five or brief gaze may be all that they are currently capable of doing.
If you are planning a party or other special event, ask your son or daughter if they feel your grandchild will be comfortable being present. You may want to change your plan to be more inclusive and focus on creating new holiday traditions together.
Keep demands for social politeness at a low level. Even if your grandchild has learned new social skills like greeting people by saying hello or shaking hands, don’t anticipate that will happen when there is a lot of stimuli like lights, music and new people in new settings.
Pace yourself and be flexible. If you have 3 events planned for a day, but there is a midday meltdown after event # 1, maybe it’s best to skip the others. It is better to have one great time together that you can all remember fondly than to watch the rest of the day deteriorate into tantrums or other behavior problems. New situations, new people, and new schedules can be overwhelming for a child with autism. Your grandchild is not being willfully defiant or difficult, and your son or daughter does not have poor parenting skills. Too much input and too many changes can be very hard for children with autism to process. Let your son or daughter know that you understand this may be what is responsible for meltdowns and negative behavior.
Create outlets or escape routes. Prepare a place in your home that is quieter and provides a comfortable spot where you grandchild can “take a break” from all of the excitement. Having a place to go for some respite time may prevent you from having to leave or end an event. Just taking a break may be all that your grandchild needs to get on to the next event.
Manage sensory input. The holiday season is filled with new experiences. Manage these to the best of your ability. If you are taking a trip to the mall, try to go at times when the mall is less busy, or make the trip shorter. The holidays might not be the best time to try new foods. Try to have something your grandchild likes at every meal.
Control Schedules. Routines and knowing what is happening next is often very important to individuals on the spectrum. Holiday schedules deviate completely from our daily normal routines and this can be especially difficult for a child with autism. Ask your son or daughter how best to handle daily schedules. Some children with autism can be included in the schedule making and this is very empowering for them. Other children may be more able to understand when given a visual schedule. Find out what works best and if an unexpected change is just about to happen, find out how best to communicate that change.
Be sure to compliment your grandchild and your son or daughter about the new abilities and progress your grandchild has achieved. Grandparents can be supportive good listeners who consistently give their families loving reinforcement at the holidays – and throughout the year.