As Christmas and other holidays approach, many of us know we will be spending extra time with relatives. When you have a child with ASD, this can mean excitement and sometimes extra stress, too. This week we’ll be taking a look at how to bring extended family members on board to support you and your child in enjoying the holidays. Here are some ideas that have worked well for our families, or for others we know who have children on the spectrum.
Thank your supporters! Some families are blessed with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who are actively, helpfully involved with the care and support of a child on the spectrum. The holidays can be a time to show appreciation and give thanks for these amazing people who help to enrich our children’s lives in many ways. Annie appreciates having extended family come to town and support her with a little bit of time off! Planning for small chunks of grandparent time, explaining clearly what to expect of their grandchildren; how to handle meal and bedtime routines, etc. allows the children to have special time with their grandparents, and helps us, as parents, feel refreshed.
What to do, though, if your family members are not as helpful as you’d like?
Remember that advice comes from a place of love. At times, our extended family members may come across as unsupportive or downright unhelpful. At this time of year, it can be especially hard to stay even-tempered when you’re focusing your energy on helping your child to stay regulated and enjoy the season. Although it can be hard to do this in the moment, we’ve found it helpful to remind ourselves that people are nearly always motivated by love and concern for us, and our children. Take a deep breath and remember they are trying to help. Our loved ones may see our stress as a sign that they need to step in, or provide advice on how to parent. Communicating your needs in an upfront, assertive (but not aggressive) way can help them know how to best support you, and your child.
Make your requests for help specific and realistic. If your family members want to be supportive, but perhaps don’t understand what your child needs, be prepared to ask for specific, concrete and reasonable help that is easy for them to offer. For example:
“Sometimes Sarah gets overwhelmed in noisy places. I would appreciate if you can get a room ready for us before we arrive, so we have somewhere quiet to go where she can recharge.”
“Arthur is on a special diet. I will bring food for him, and it would be so helpful if you could leave room on the table for his food, so that he doesn’t feel left out of the buffet.”
Remember that you don’t need to justify your choices. It can be easy to become defensive and feel judged when relatives at a busy family gathering offer advice that goes against what you know is best for your child, or suggest that your child’s behaviour is a result of poor parenting. One idea we’ve found helpful is memorizing a few neutral phrases that you can use to deflect unhelpful suggestions from well-meaning relatives.
“Thanks for your concern; this is working well for our family.”
“I appreciate your concern for Timmy. We’re lucky to have so many people who care about him.”
“Our autism specialist has recommended that we try this approach. We trust her judgment.”
Clear communication, planning for your child’s needs, and knowing when to take breaks can help to ensure that the stress of the holidays does not lead to family strain. With a little bit of effort, this can be an enjoyable time to gather with extended family and friends to share love and joy, support and caring.
Annie Denning Hille is an RDI consultant in training in Portland, Oregon. She and her husband are parenting two boys, ages 7 and 9. Her 9 year old is on the spectrum. She embraces the gifts autism can bring and is thrilled to be supporting other parents and families using RDI. She can be found at www.guidedpathwaysnw.com.
Vicki Parnell lives in Burnaby, British Columbia with her husband, Jeff, and their two marvelous teenagers. She is an avid cook, a distance runner, a voracious reader, and she travels whenever she can. As an RDI consultant, Vicki wants to empower parents as the experts on their own children, and restore a sense of hope and confidence to families affected by ASD