A common saying in the autism community that’s true year-round is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” At Social Motion Skills, we try to keep this principle top-of-mind in our individualized approach to providing life path solutions to children with autism and similar special needs. Truly, each person with cognitive differences is unique.
During the holiday season, we often see articles with tips for families with children who have autism. Such listicles offer well-meaning advice, but in their attempts to appeal to a broad readership, they risk stereotyping neurodiverse individuals. Proposed suggestions such as informing relatives in advance not to hug an autistic child, not to worry if a child doesn’t speak, not to be offended if a child doesn’t make eye contact, and not to say anything if a child won’t eat, paints a picture of autism that simply doesn’t apply to every child with the condition. This risks creating an expectation of generalized “autistic behaviors,” most of them negative, when instead we should be raising awareness of the case-specific nature of autism spectrum disorders.
In truth, not all children with autism are intolerant of physical affection from others. Not all are non-verbal or struggle with eye contact. Not all can be expected to throw tantrums at the dinner table or to exhibit “stimming” behavior such as flapping their arms. Some might do one or two of these things. Some might not do any. And some might do all the above.
Because we believe the best approach to care is an individualized one, we’d like to offer some real-world holiday memories from two moms who raised sons on the spectrum. (Both our sons are now young adults.) These aren’t tips to ensure a happy holiday for all families; they are the specific idiosyncrasies of our own children. Maybe you and your family will relate—but if you don’t, that’s ok. Because each child with autism is unique.
Wendy Dawson: “When Cameron was young, simple meals worked best. He didn’t need his own special holiday meal prepared for him, but if the person cooking dinner could set aside plain portions (not touching each other!) without sauces, he would prefer that.”
Denise Hazen: “Nicholas has a gag reflex in response to food texture sometimes when eating, but he’ll keep eating.”
WD: “Cameron has a fantastic memory and so if anything during the event was going to change from year to year, it helped to inform him first so he wouldn’t be confused or upset. ”
DH: “Nicholas didn’t always understand that certain things were off-limits. He might wander into someone’s bedroom. He was also very specific with his Christmas list. If you bought a gift that wasn’t on his list, he might not like it.”
WD: “Cameron knows what he wants, and that actually makes buying gifts for him simple! He would provide us a list and be very excited to get the items he had contemplated. He also puts thought into the gifts he gives others. Many times it’s his very kind and touching words on a card that offer a glimpse into the heart of this amazing person who doesn’t always aptly verbalize or show his heartfelt emotion.”
DH: “The hardest part of having a child with autism is that it’s an invisible disability, so people judge erratic behavior. Unless you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know that pain. People are quick to judge them as brats, unruly, weirdos, nerds—stigmatizing words. It’s heartbreaking as a parent. It affects the parent even more than the child sometimes. For parents of young ones: there’s hope. Presents come wrapped in different ribbons sometimes. Having a son with autism is not what I expected but is the greatest gift I’ve ever had. My family and I are better people as a result of him.”
This holiday season, we encourage you to embrace the unique ways each member of your family enjoys celebrating together!