This guest blog post was written by an RDI parent working with consultant Pat Voytko. Here she discusses some strategies she used last year to survive the holidays, hoping they might encourage others.
Like many parents of special needs children, I found myself starting to worry about and even dread the holiday season this year. If last year’s disaster was any indication of how December 2014 would be, I knew I was going to be in for an awful ride. Just to make things more interesting, in addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas, our family has five birthdays (including Michael’s) in the last six weeks of the calendar year. Because, you know, breaking routine and adding lots of excitement and parties to life is just what every autistic kid needs to remain stable.
Last year was the first time Michael was really aware of his birthday, so we built up the anticipation and went all out. He got an Iron Man/Avengers themed affair and dictated what kind of cake and presents he wanted. He was SO excited about it that he was sick for two months afterwards. Then we went away for three days at Christmas where he was up all night in families’ homes and hotels. January was hell. It took him weeks to return to normal.
Then I’m a wild card too. I love my family’s traditions, and I try to hang on to them as best as I can. I love Christmas and the special family times and memories. I really do enjoy it. But hosting Thanksgiving and three birthday parties, taking the family away for Christmas, and thinking about purchasing presents for nineteen immediate family members (let’s not forget those birthdays too!) can really make my ADD go into overdrive. I find myself running around without a plan and not in a good frame of mind to provide Michael with the stable environment and routine that he needs.
I was determined that this year was going to be different. I learned a few lessons from last year and was ready to make some changes while keeping as much as I could about what I loved from the holidays. Here are the changes we implemented.
- We did not talk about Michael’s birthday at all unless he brought it up. I did not mention a party or presents or anything. He knew the day was coming up because he has a calendar on his wall with special events written on it. (He’s been doggedly crossing off all 280 days on it so he knows when the new baby is coming.) He requested some presents but I made no promises and downplayed everything.
- The day of his birthday we did not throw a party. Members of the family came and visited in groups of twos and threes, staggered throughout the day, and did not stay more than 20 or 30 minutes, which is Michael’s limit. We had the whole day planned out, kept him busy, transitioned him from activity to activity, but kept things calm and low key as well. There was no huge excitement, cake event, or momentous occasions. He turned down offers of singing happy birthday and hugs and was very happy with all his new birthday presents. He never got overly stimulated and the whole day was a happy and stress free affair for him. Again, we did not talk about birthdays or parties afterward.
Icing cupcakes he made himself to give to his guests.
Receiving a toy NASA shuttle that once belonged to his mommy and uncle.
Getting help from Daddy to assemble a Lego shuttle and launch pad (see a pattern?).
Getting a Toothless action figure at bed time (the one gift he had been begging for).
- Michael had very limited access to the other birthday parties we hosted at our home. With six adults and nine children celebrating, the place gets pretty full and noisy, and Michael finds it hard getting alone time in his usual escape places. Instead, he got to go out and have one on one time with a grandparent from the other side of the family for several hours while the party was going on at our place, and he would join us just for the last 30 minutes or so. He wasn’t deprived of celebrating with the birthday person, but he wasn’t forced to deal with more than he could handle either. He would usually come back in time to give his birthday present, eat some cake, and see the family for a few minutes. It really worked out for him, and he wasn’t totally wired when everyone left either. This was a really big win for us, something we are definitely going to repeat.
- I kept up my routine for as long as I could. Michael had lots of new toys, particularly Legos from his birthday, that kept him busy. We did our morning homeschooling and afternoon movies. I didn’t talk about upcoming events until the day of and tried to keep things normal and boring as much as possible. He totally thrived. I lost it the week before Christmas as I went nuts with last minute preparations, mostly leaving the children to their own devices, and I noticed his behavior declined in that time, but all in all, I gave him as much stability as I could, and he really rose to the occasion and kept it together.
- We ended up not traveling this year. The decision was mostly made by Nate’s job that required him to be local, and I was really bummed about missing out on my annual visit with extended family, but I could not deny that it was really the best move for the kids. They just don’t sleep away from home and their behavior quickly spirals out of control as their sleep deprivation increases. We spent a few hours visiting with family on Christmas day and quickly took the kids home as soon as they crashed around nap time. They’ve been home in their beds every night and getting afternoon naps and it’s really kept things even keeled.
My only major slip up this year was I left a broken bottle of red food dye on the back of my counter on THE DAY OF CHRISTMAS EVE NO LESS and Michael got into it while I was out doing errands and he was home with a sitter. The stuff leaked into his skin and he got a bad reaction, the same as if he ate some, and got out of control with his sensory seeking behavior (we got NO sleep that night). Usually stuff like that lasts 48 to 72 hours, but with the use of some of our alternative medicine treatments, the reaction was substantially minimized and only lasted about a day. I really considered myself lucky there. He did very well Christmas Day while we were out visiting (again, new Lego set kept him quiet, happy, and busy).
Now I’m trying to catch my breath from the whole month of December (and catch up with the laundry, the dishes, the routine, etc.), but Michael has coasted through beautifully. I’m so pleased. It’s like the opposite of last year. It was very hard work for me and Nate, trying to anticipate and plan for every little event that might upset his equilibrium but it was totally worth it. We definitely learned what worked for us in terms of keeping things calm and easy for the kids to handle. And we were still able to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas and spend time with family as well, which was very important to me and my years of tradition.
I’m so grateful for how things went, and hopeful about having enjoyable, peaceful holiday seasons in the future. Here’s hoping you all had wonderful Christmases yourselves, and may you enjoy a fantastic New Year!
Pat Voytko is an RDI® Consultant, special education teacher and early intervention provider. RDI® has become the foundation of all her work as it focuses on the natural process of developing relationships, which, in turn, supports social/cognitive development and an improved quality of life. Contact Pat: firstname.lastname@example.org