Open Letter from an Autism Mom: What the Holidays Mean to our Family
December 07, 2021
December 07, 2021
More often than not, we talk about the holiday season being an overwhelming time for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sensory struggles and other challenges related to autism can make this time of year tougher for some, but for others, Christmas means magic.
We recently spoke to Jessica, a mom of four children with special needs, about what the holidays mean to her family. Her oldest son, Ryder, age 6, has cerebral palsy, and her three youngest – Rowen, 4; Ranger, 2; and Raisely, 16 months – are all diagnosed with autism and attend Hopebridge Autism Therapy Center in Milford, Ohio. Though they may experience the holidays a bit differently than others, this season is their favorite time of year, and we were lucky enough to have a peek into their merry world of Christmas.
Our story is a little different. My water broke with my first born when I was only 28 weeks pregnant. There were some complications while bringing Ryder into the world, and we soon found out he had severe cerebral palsy.
I’m an only child and my husband comes from a small family, so after learning about Ryder’s challenges, I wanted him to be surrounded by a big family to support him and each other. From there, we decided to have our kids back to back!
Six months after our first daughter, Rowan, was born, I started noticing signs of autism. Originally, the pediatricians from our home in Nashville brushed it aside, assuming I was emotional after what I went through with Ryder. I pushed on for my daughter and got the best eyes on her when we moved to Ohio. When she finally received her autism diagnosis, I was already pregnant with Ranger and knew it was important to monitor his milestones. Then by the time Raisely was born, Ranger was diagnosed, too, so I already knew what to expect when my baby displayed similar symptoms. We had her evaluated for autism, and she just started applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) this month, at an even younger age than her brothers and sisters.
Even though they all have vastly different personalities, each of my children experienced similar signs of ASD. They are all nonverbal, including Ryder, but are learning to communicate in their own ways. Since we can’t verbally communicate, it’s important I watch and follow them to learn their interests and what makes them happy.
Another sign I noticed at an early age was stimming; mostly hand-flapping, turning their ankles and feet in circles, and vocal stimming. They do it when they’re excited, and it’s this same happy stimming I get to see so much of during the holidays.
The December holidays are a big deal in our family. My kids love all holidays, but Christmas is by far their favorite. It’s one of the things we can all connect with together.
They adore Christmas lights. There is just something so magical about those twinkling lights. It’s a huge sensory play for them. The lights get them so excited and have them constantly stimming.
This year, to appeal to their interests, we bought a new Christmas tree that comes with a remote so we can switch up the colors of the lights. Each year, when I put the tree up, I am not allowed to walk away until I put the star on top. Rowen doesn’t let me … she knows the routine! She likes it done the same way every time. This year, Raisely went to bed before we put up the tree and she fell in love with it the next morning.
One of our favorite family traditions is visiting the drive-in lights each year. We get dressed up in cozy, festive pajamas and head out of the house. It is the perfect combination to appeal to all my kids. Rowen suffers from anxiety and is fearful of a lot in the world. She’s more of a homebody, unlike my other kids who prefer to be on the go all the time. Viewing the lights from the car allows Rowen to feel safe and comfortable in her own space, yet everyone is able to experience the movement and joy without becoming overwhelmed.
The Christmas Ranch and Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo are other special places for us to see the lights on display in Cincinnati this time of year. We love sitting by the big fire, ordering fresh chocolate chip cookies and watching the lights. Walking in public places can be difficult for Rowen, so we bring the wagon, but she enjoys listening to music and watching people dance among the lights.
I know it is not always easy for autism families to travel, whether locally or while on vacation, but for our family, I find the days we don’t leave the house to actually be tougher. My kids are all about movement and activities.
I’ve always been on the go, even before having my kiddos. They are now the same way and have become accustomed to that lifestyle. They like road trips and staying in hotels or Airbnb rentals.
My kids are more into boxes and wrapping paper than they are into the gifts themselves, so the theme in our family has become more about making memories. Rather than opening tangible presents, we focus on trips and experiences.
This time of year, we travel to Great Wolf Lodge and back to my hometown in Tennessee for Christmas. Not only does Great Wolf have spectacular Christmas displays, but my kids thrive in aquatic therapy (Raisely loves water play and takes three to four baths a day!), so the indoor waterpark is a blast for all our kids. Ryder is wheelchair bound, but the park has accessible options, making it a great opportunity for him to play and explore.
While traveling, having a large enough space to unwind is key. Since we’re a big family with multiple autistic kids, I typically book two conjoined hotel rooms. This way, they’re all safe and having fun. We can all take part in family activities together, but they also have their quiet spaces when they need to take a break to unwind and calm down. This is especially important for Rowen, who can get overstimulated and need a refresher before it’s time for her to feel ready to go and have fun again.
I’ve always been in love with Christmas, and I think it partly stems from my grandfather dressing up as Santa when I was a kid. His father did it for the generation before me, and my PawPaw carried on the tradition of wearing the red suit not only for me, but now for my kids; his great-grandchildren. I like to carry the good moments from my childhood down to theirs, even though they have a different journey than I did.
As it is for many children with autism, the idea of Santa is a tricky one in our household. Ryder is fascinated by Santa, but it’s a bit much for Ranger and Rowen to have this guy dressed up and holding them on their lap.
Because of this, we focus on making the scenario comfortable for them. I make a Christmas backdrop in my house to create our own meet-and-greet space and photo opportunities with Santa … A.K.A. my PawPaw. He can get loud at times, so I ask him to speak quietly around the kids. Setting up this environment enables my children to participate in a way that works for them, since each might handle it differently. Doing it this way allows us to create a variety of special moments.
We are lucky to have someone close to us to make this happen, but thankfully, a lot of places now offer sensory-friendly events with Santa, or nights with quiet or dimmed lights. There are so many more inclusive options to be able to take our kids who have special needs; parents just need to search for what’s available in their communities.
This is what works for our family. How a family handles the holidays should depend on that family’s lifestyle and their child’s needs and interests.
I had to learn the hard way to step back. When I didn’t know better, I used to try to force activities and what I liked onto my kids. Looking back, I’m sure it was hard and scary for them. Christmas is special for us because it never felt forced. It’s something they genuinely love. It’s nice for me to have this bond over the holidays with them.
Getting my kids into ABA therapy at Hopebridge set us up for more moments like these. Hopebridge opened up my world when we moved to Cincinnati.
Therapy helped us get them on schedules and better communicate with each other through augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), like Rowen’s communication device and Ranger’s use of PECS. Autism therapy at Hopebridge helped them adapt to other kids and people. Rowen used to be scared of new faces; now she is content. All of our kids are able to participate in more activities now that they’re getting used to being around other kids and adults.
I’m so thankful for the community Hopebridge gave my whole family. They know how to love our kiddos. They get down on their level, personally and emotionally. My children are happy when I pick them up each day. I can see it all over their faces, even though they don’t speak, just like I can see their joy when looking at the twinkling Christmas lights.
– Jessica, mom to Ryder, Rowen, Ranger and Raisely
We want to see the spark in your child’s eyes, too. We want to help your family enjoy special moments together and watch your kiddo find joy in their daily life. If you want to help them reach more opportunities for fun and independence, reach out to us to schedule an assessment for autism or ABA evaluation at one of our locations around the country.
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