As a young girl I always looked forward to Christmas. The entire family trimming the tree, the occasional Christmas Caroler (does anyone do that anymore?), the giving and receiving of gifts, getting Christmas cards in the mail (no internet back then) great food, great company and the displays of lights around the neighorhood. What I did not realize then, was that all the little things become family tradition.
Coming from an Italian family, we ALWAYS had homemade lasagna. Cooking the sauce takes two days and puttting it all together takes time as well. Cooking and comraderie in the kitchen. We all participated, we all sampled as we cooked, and in the end we all enjoyed lasagna as the main event! Antipasto, meats, cheese, salads and pastries always seemed better the next day. Left overs are not just expected its a requirement.
My husbands family had other traditions. His mother insisted on trimming the tree by herself. And, she insisted on cooking by herself. She made Christmas stockings. Everyone in the family has one, and we are expected to use them. She bakes Christmas cookies and she begins right after Thanksgiving, typically offering one month old stale cookies on a Holiday. Crab dip (cream cheese, salsa and crab over it), carrot soup, ham string beans and cranberry sauce. And, when there are no leftovers, she planned the meal exactly right!
Autism has the capacity to dramatically alter expectations and family traditions. The sensory issues around food, scents, noise, and people all take its toll on family traditions. Determined not to keep my daughter as a shut-in, I bring her too many places. But, the Holiday expectations at my in-laws has started to take its toll.
In our home, Kate can come and go from the table as she pleases. This way she can escape when the noise and scents become too much overload for her sensitive system to take. In our kitchen, I can make her whatever familiar foods she wants to eat. In our home her autism is welcome and she is comfortably surrounded by friends and family.
The obligatory “Christmas with the In-Laws” is fine for typical children. But, our Kate is far from typical. She needs space for stimming. She needs a variety of food choices. She needs a quiet space to go off to and an open seat at the table to go to when she wants to see her family.
I’ve offered to host all the holiday dinners. I’ve even offered to just give-up my kitchen so his mom can create whatever dishes traditional dishes she would like to serve. But, it all falls on deaf ears. One year I was so frustrated that I put my foot down, there will be no more holiday dinners with the in-laws! If Kate is not comfortable, we are not going! We were invited to go to the in-laws house to exchange gifts with one of my husbands’s three siblings and her family. I thought we would have a 2 hour visit and perhaps see the tree at Rockefeller Center, NYC (maybe order a pizza). BUT NO! His mom invited my husband’s unmarried brother from California as a surprise guest! And, she made her traditional “Christmas Dinner”. DAMN IT! I was completely unprepared! I had no special foods for Kate, and no escape plan in sight. Just grin and bear it.
Our other daughter “D” has the privelege of sitting in between me and my mother-in-law (Nana). A stickler for manners, she is always quick to criticize and correct my child. When “D” said I don’t want creamed carrot soup, Nana insisted she try it. “D”, six years old, said “I don’t like this soup Nana.” Nana said, “That’s rude. Say I don’t care for any thank you.” My daughter was not happy being corrected at the table in front of her family. And, she remained quiet for the rest of the meal. I was not happy, but not about to add to the stress . Kate went upstairs to get away from the meal. I wished I could just go up there with her. (If only)
As the meal ended, I went upstairs in search of Kate. Once I found her I asked her to come downstairs with me. She was walking on the stairs unassisted, slipped landed on her butt with a loud crash and slid down the remaining four stairs on her back! She began to scream. Kate’s father ran to get ice and I held Kate. No one else came to help! His family continued to converse as if nothing had happened. I was boiling mad! After five minutes of ice I made the decision that it was time to pack up my family and leave. We left.
I promised myself that our family would find a way to celebrate the holidays in a way that includes Kate. I know there is a way to modify what we can keep and toss out what is too challenging for her. Combining traditions, catering to a frustrated old woman that holds on to what worked best for her in the past is out! Starting new, inclusive, healthy traditions that support family values is in!
I’m open for suggestions. How do you keep it all together during the holidays! What works for you? What makes you crazy? Is there anything you do that reduces your stress? Please let me know.