Tips and Resources From an Autistic Coach on Helping Your Autistic Child Enjoy, Not Suffer Through, the Holidays

Jaesic Wade has firsthand experience with the difficulties autistic people face, especially around busy times like holidays. As a nonbinary autistic person and University of Michigan graduate, they now run their own Accessibility & Inclusion Consulting & Coaching business, are a community organizer and blogger, and work professionally as a creative in music and dance. 

“I’ve been on my autistic discovery journey since 2020 and have been working as a co-educator/learner with Aucademy, an autistic-led education platform and collective based in the UK, for almost a year now,” Wade said. “I support individuals in their own self-discovery when it comes to gender, sexuality, neurodivergence, and polyamorous exploration. I also support parents, and other allies, who seek to understand and respect those who are queer, neurodivergent, or disabled in their lives. I am incredibly passionate about being an agent of change for a more equitable and compassionate society.”

For neurotypical parents who have a neurodivergent child, learning the areas of support your child may need that are quite different from what you (or another) child needs can feel challenging, but it needn’t be intimidating. 

“Autistic children are still just children,” Wade reminds us. “They just may have different or more support needs than other children.” 

Offering Support

Wade offers these six general strategies for parents or caregivers to best support an autistic child: 

  1. Keep kids active, but make sure they have ample opportunity to rest and disengage when they need to. Talk with them, witness them, they will communicate in the ways they know how. If they’re having consistent shutdowns or meltdowns, then something in their environment needs to change. Remember, meltdowns are NOT tantrums. Meltdowns are an involuntary physical response to overstimulation, whether the stimuli is external such as noise/lights or internal such as emotions. And depending on their development and age, they may not be able to communicate what they’re feeling and why, so doing some guess work and making their environment more accommodating is your best option. 
  2. Engaging their muscles sets off a chain reaction for calm feelings later on, so let your child stim in ways that make sense to them. If that means they need to spin around, let them do so. If they can’t stay still, it’s up to you to make the environment safe, not to confine their movement (which genuinely can be traumatic). 
  3. Establish a routine and consistently check in about it. Try your best to make sure your child knows what to expect on your outings, and what day to day activities will look like. Of course schedules shift because that’s what the real world does, but try to stay as close to the schedule as possible, and have patience for their shut/meltdowns should they occur from experiencing change. 
  4. If you are going out, check if there are spaces where your child can rest away from overstimulation? Always plan for the need for downtime.
  5. Be prepared with safe snacks, favorite portable stim toys and gadgets, any portable comfort items like a stuffed animal, and noise canceling/dampening headphones or earplugs (what we call ear defenders). 
  6. Have a developed check-in language with your child if they are old enough. If they give a signal or say the “safe word” then it’s time to go or at least remove them from that specific environment, or to attend to their needs specifically. 
PC: Pixabay

Strategies for handling holiday stress

In the midst of holiday busyness, some of these strategies might need to change. No matter how securely you’ve solidified your family routine, the holidays are bound to change that. Holidays also bring lots of opportunities for overstimulation: often there are more people around, lots of decorations (in the home or out of it), loud holiday music, or new activities. 

During the holidays, Wade urges parents to use these eight familiar strategies and new ones:

  1. Allow your child time to adjust. This might mean not scheduling anything with anyone, anywhere, for a few days after school gets out. Let them transition at their own pace at home.
  2. Keeping decorations to a minimum, or in muted tones/less intense smells, or having none at all, can keep your house a safe place when the outside world is already a lot to handle during the holiday season. You could also keep decorations to just one room in the house, or decorate in stages. It’s always good to ask your child what they’d prefer if they’re of age and ability to communicate their needs. 
  3. Having visuals for what to expect for each day of the week can be super helpful. Describing, or even better, having pictures to look at what can be expected for grandma’s house or shopping at the mall can be a useful tool to prevent discomfort when outings are necessary.
  4. Jodie Smitten, a children’s well-being practitioner and autism specialist, said, “Parent your children based on their needs, not other peoples’ judgment and expectations.” This means that if your child doesn’t want to hug family members during visits, don’t pressure them to. If they have a fuss over holiday food, have safe favorite alternatives for them. If your child needs downtime away from people, even if it takes up most of the visit, allow them to do so. If they don’t want to change out of pjs for the day, don’t make them (you can even make it a family thing and join them!). If they want screen time, let them have it! 
  5. Surprise/change can greatly impact your autistic child. When it comes to presents, there can be great distress over not knowing how to respond to a gift, or stress over not liking what was gifted. You can avoid some discomfort by not wrapping your autistic child’s presents, or telling your child what they’re getting. Or, allow them to open the gift on their own away from people. If you think this spoils the holiday spirit, please keep in mind your experience is not your child’s, even if you are autistic yourself. Talk with your child about what they would prefer if they’re of age/ability to communicate their needs with you. Giving your autistic child their gifts over the course of several days instead of one morning/evening can also help. And if they can’t mask their reaction to gifts they receive, assure whoever gifted them that your child is grateful.
  6. If your child struggles with mouth words, nagging them to say “please” or “thank you” can often make them feel worse, especially if they’re already trying to do so on their own. If they can’t seem to do it, say it to whomever on their behalf (modeling behavior).  
  7. Parents, use the power of “no”. If your relatives/friends can’t be accommodating or respectful of your child’s needs, you don’t need to feel obligated to visit. This also applies to your child: allow them to say “no” to any activity. Your holiday experience doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s celebration. What matters is that your family unit is content with what you’re experiencing. Prior to gatherings, maybe practice scripts of “excuses” so that saying “no” is accessible to you and them. 
  8. Specific to arriving or leaving, don’t make a big to-do about it. Let your child enter or leave without all the fuss.
PC: Pixabay

Parents can and should discover ways to support themselves while also supporting their child. 

Wade said, “If you’re still hoping to see specific friends or family members, see if you can leave your children home with your spouse or someone you trust so that you can still get your holiday visit in. If you’re hosting people instead of going out, make sure everyone involved knows you have a hard cutoff time for people to leave, and that you may have to ask people to leave early should it come down to it. If there are specific topics that would be inappropriate to expose your children to, or if you yourself are uncomfortable (like comments on how you parent your autistic child), then be sure people know those topics will not be tolerated and they will be asked to leave (or you will leave if you’re at their house).”

Trying to offer suggestions on what not to do for an autistic loved one can be challenging, because everyone is different, just as every neurotypical person is different. Wade suggests: 

  1. Caregivers consider how important it is to provide opportunities for autonomy and to not overly lavish their child with praise when they accomplish a small task–this can feel infantilizing. (Note that this isn’t the same as being positively affirming to your child, which is important.) 
  2. If your child is having a meltdown, hugging your child without checking in on their needs can backfire. Hugging is not soothing unless the child is seeking after the hug themselves. Ask and wait for the child to let you know what they want before touching them. 
  3. Research trends before unequivocally jumping on board: for example, at Halloween time, don’t use blue pumpkins. Wade said, “We shouldn’t be singling out children and gatekeeping who can and cannot have candy. There are plenty of reasons why a child won’t or can’t perform the “trick or treat” act, regardless if they’re autistic, and no child should be denied candy for it.”
  4. Telling or letting anyone tell an autistic child, “You don’t look autistic” or “I never would have known.” Wade notes, “Compliments like “You don’t look autistic” aren’t actually compliments. They are backhanded ableist comments because autism doesn’t have a ‘look’ and being told our autism is invisible/doesn’t exist just points to how well we mask or how misunderstood we are, and a lot of pain has usually been endured because of masking and misunderstanding.”
PC: Pixabay

Resources 

For parents or caregivers who want more resources, Wade recommends: 

  1. Neuroqueer Heresies by Nick Walker’s, one of the pioneers of the Neurodiversity Movement: “It’s not directly related to children, but it gives a better look at the bigger picture and is so incredibly valuable.”
  2. PandasOnline is the only course for autistic young people delivered by autistic adults in collaboration with autistic young people. It’s a course where your child can learn about their  autistic experience and how to communicate about it with safe adults.
  3. Aucademy (aucademy.co.uk), based in the UK. 
  4. Following pages like Jodie Smitten’s page, Neurodivergent Rebel, Autisticality, Autistic and Living the Dream, The Punk Rock Autistic, The Autistic Avenger, and many more can be great resources.  
  5. Notanautismmom.com also has excellent resources.

With so many resources out there, what resources might be bad? 

  1. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). The autistic community is very vocal about avoiding ABA, because it only teaches autistic children how to be more palatable for the neurotypical world. Wade said, “ABA does not teach how to cope with the challenges autistic children face as an autistic person in a world that doesn’t serve them, or in embracing and celebrating who they are. This leads to poor development of understanding their own needs, boundaries, and voice, and is directly related to a rise in self-harm, depression, and anxiety. If you are a parent who didn’t know better because professionals tell you ABA is your only option, you are not a bad person. But please, look to #ActuallyAutistic voices about ABA, and seek out different resources, because they DO exist, but not as an alternative to ABA itself. Please read this article (and look through the rest of this awesome website, full of resources) to learn why.”
  2. Stay away from anything that tells you your child is broken and needs fixing. “We aren’t people who “have” autism, we are autistic!” says Jaesic. “And depending on how a child’s autism is expressed, they may just have more support needs than other people. This does not mean they are “low functioning” (we don’t use functioning labels because they always put those who are labeled at a disadvantage: “low functioning” leaves those autistics to be looked down on and often aren’t allowed their own voice; “high functioning” leaves those autistics without enough support, always struggling behind the scenes).”
  3. Autism Speaks is considered a hate group that uses ABA, is not autistic designed or led, and seeks a “cure” for autism. A puzzle piece is often associated with them, so Jaesic recommends to “be wary of any institution that touts a puzzle piece in support of autistic people.”
Photo credit: Jaesic’s website, of Jaesic.

For readers interested in learning more about Jaesic’s coaching business, their blog is queercult.org, and their coaching services will soon be available at their new website, queerculturecoaching.com. Their upcoming workshop is Practicing Pronouns on Dec 11th at 1-3pm EST held virtually which addresses the history of pronouns, how and why we use them, what microaggressions are, and lots of practice and tips in engaging with and respecting the trans community. 

You can find Wade’s information on their blog, @thequeercult on Facebook and Instagram as well, or email queercultcoaching@gmail.com.