Getting Real With Veronica Ibarra

As I’ve been learning how to address my son’s autism so that he has the opportunity to grow and learn, it has meant putting a little more order into our routines and sticking to structure. This has been beneficial to all of us, but with the holidays comes a certain amount of chaos as we make exceptions and change things up to allow for the celebrating.

First, if you don’t know, autism is most basically a developmental disorder that affects the development of social and communication skills. However, though there are some commonalities among those with autism, it varies by degree in ways that can make it challenging to address. For my son, in addition to addressing his communication skills and language development, one of the issues we struggle with is sticking to familiar routines. Deviations can lead to anxiety and meltdowns that he cannot calm himself down from.

That’s one of the most difficult things to get others to understand. My son isn’t being a brat. He literally does not possess the ability to calm himself when he is distressed. It takes outside intervention by a calm person to help reestablish his calm. And anything unfamiliar causes distress … which brings us to the holidays, where everything becomes unfamiliar with the decorating and the changes in routine and the celebrating.

The holidays bring families together. This usually means more people in the house, and where it is usually quiet, there are now loud voices and laughter. Those loud voices might be joyfully cheery, but if quiet is your norm, then it can become just unwelcome noise. The usual bedtime is waived in favor of allowing youngsters to be part of the celebration until they drop from exhaustion. This is not a good thing for my son, and another one of those difficult things for people to understand.

My son is 4, and like most 4 year olds he likes repetition of favorite movies and songs, but it goes beyond that. Introducing him to new movies and songs is always a struggle. He cries, hides, and screams until he’s been exposed three or four times; then he loves it. How do you get others to understand and tolerate the process that is necessary when everyone just wants to sit down and watch a holiday movie he’s never seen before?

Then there’s the change in eating habits around the holidays. Sugary treats become the main snacking course and the family feast is made up of foods not seen too often. I mean, I don’t cook a turkey every day, do you? Well, sugar and my son are not an ideal combination. We have to limit him in a way we do not have to limit our daughter, so then it looks like we’re discriminating. However, at the same time my son is one picky eater, to the point where the only healthy things we can get him to eat are chicken and apples. There is no bribing him or negotiating. So then we look like we’re being too lenient.

Navigating the holidays has become more challenging than I ever thought possible as we try to enjoy ourselves and make it possible for my son to enjoy it too. Most of our family and friends are starting to understand, but it is still difficult when they don’t spend every day with us. Holidays mean making exceptions and deviating from the normal routine of mundane life. While this is what makes the holidays fun and exciting for most of us, it is exactly what makes it a time of anxiety and distress for my little guy …  and why I have to be more sensitive to his unique needs.