Summertime fun often includes family gatherings – I know we’re hosting a big one tomorrow. I thought it may behoove us all to remember the struggles that can come with the fun. I’ve provided these tips before, but this is a condensed version for those who have joined the blog more recently.
First, know there is simply too much input during the holidays. Too much for all of us…but for a child on the spectrum it is the holy grail of chaos. The food, the new faces, the smells, the textures, the noise—all in an often unfamiliar space.
There are two sets of strategies here. One for families – the other for folks hosting events.
As always, remember that one thing may work for us, but not for you. It may work for you, and not us – again with the ‘no one is the same’ business for those of us who live life on the spectrum. Here are five major strategies for ANY large gathering.
#1 – Preparation. Children on the spectrum NEED schedules…and let me tell you, there is nothing like a family gathering to throw a complete wrench in the schedule. Granted, I love these gatherings – but, boy oh boy…they are ridiculously challenging and it takes WORK. WORK to prepare our children. What does this mean?
- Who will be there?
- Sleeping arrangements (if an overnight is anticipated)
- What time will we arrive?
- What time will we leave?
- What will there be to eat?
- What will there be to drink?
- Can he go outside?
- Where his ‘safe place’ will be (see #2 for safe room information)
- What is expected.
Then, we often write these things down, clearly – so he can continue to refer to the list. While I’m busy preparing food (or otherwise) for the gathering I can simply say, “Check the list Tucker, it’s all there. If something is missing or you have another question let’s add it to the list.” And we do…
#2 – Safe Place. What is a ‘safe place?’ This is a previously designated location (location is also on the list above). When he was younger I had a fun sign that read “Tucker’s Place.” I would put the sign up so people knew it was his spot. I sit with him in this spot first – so he knows it isn’t a ‘time-out, naughty’ type of spot…but a comforting, resting spot. We set out his things, together: a couple of favorite books, a pencil and notepad for drawing, his Nintendo DS and earbuds. Now we include his phone and an iPad. All of the things that he could use to take a break, to calm, to refocus.
#3 – Sleeping Time. We begin DAYS in advance if we know the schedules are going to get messy. If he is experiencing a lack of sleep…everything will be much worse.
#4 – Talk, talk, and more talk. We talk about the events. We reminisce to give him a reference. We talk about what to do if someone isn’t following the rules at a game. We talk about what to do when we get emotional. We talk about trust…and always, always coming to us after always, always just walking away.
#5 – Social stories. When he was younger we created social stories together to help him think about and understand a new experience.
11 steps to a spectrum-friendly family gathering….please insert the child’s name wherever you find the name Tucker (and change appropriate pronouns).
Step #1 – Reach out to the family and ask the dang question(s).
- What can I do to make this a better experience for Tucker?
- I’ve done some reading. I now understand a little more. What changes could we make to make this more comfortable for Tucker?
Step #2 – Protect the safe place. Understand the safe place may very well be Tucker’s saving grace. When Tucker goes to this place leave him alone AND be his protector. Don’t allow others to move his ‘stuff.’ Most of all…if you find him here – please leave him alone. He is trying desperately to sort all of the stimuli in his brain. I guarantee you that he is NOT being rude…in fact, he’s trying really hard not to be rude by being alone.
Step #3 – Be patient with our schedule. If Tucker needs to eat/before or after everyone else…simply be patient. Know that we are trying to do our best to keep him calm. If we need to leave…please just let us. I promise WE do not want to…but we NEED to…for the sake of Tucker’s (and our own) sanity.
Step #4 – Be patient with us. If we are trying to get Tucker to nap…it may take A LONG TIME to get his senses calmed down enough to close his beautiful eyes. We are not ignoring you…we are trying to help him relax…and therefore, helping your gathering be successful.
Step #5 – Don’t give him a hard time about what he is (or not) eating. Asking (or forcing) him to eat anything mushy will immediately cause vomiting, crying, and screaming. No…I’m not joking. Please…just let him be. He will eat what he likes and when he is hungry – don’t worry – I got this, I am his parent after all.
Step #6 – Ask how you could help with a social story. Could you send us pictures of your house (if it’s a new location). When Tucker walks in – could you greet him specifically? “Hello ____. Let me show you around our house. Here is the restroom. Here is the refrigerator – help yourself to any drinks. Let me show you a spot I have JUST FOR YOU! Your mom/dad said you sometimes like to have alone time. Here it is!” He will then recognize you as someone who loves.
Step #7 – Unless Tucker is hurting someone, please don’t try to step in and ‘correct’ his behavior. Come get us – we are ‘professionals’ at helping with him. Odds are he didn’t know the rules, is feeling overwhelmed, or just doesn’t understand…allow us to teach him.
Step #8 – Please, please, please don’t talk about Tucker like we are not standing there…or like he can’t understand you. He is more sensitive than you will ever realize. He knows he is different…trust me, he knows. The last thing he needs is someone who ‘loves’ him as part of the family pointing out all the ways he doesn’t ‘match.’
Step #9 – Help us…help him. Let your home be a safe, welcoming place for him. Help him feel like he is a part of this family. He already feels singled out. He feels different at school. He does not have many close friends. Please, please, please don’t let that carry over…he needs all of you – to love all of him.
Step #10 – Be patient with him. He is trying. I guarantee he is doing his very best. This reminds me of one of my favorite poems…let us not criticize, be hostile, ridicule, or shame. Instead, be tolerant, encouraging, offer praise, be fair, show security, grant approval, and most of all…show acceptance and friendship.
Step #11 – Be thankful for him. These very special children have SO much to offer, SO much to teach…we can learn SO much if we are just willing. Be thankful for their presence in your life…I know I am so very, very thankful for everything he has taught me.