Great Expectations – Lowering the Bar to Increase Confidence

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Great Expectations – Lowering the Bar to Increase Confidence During the Holidays  

by Joanna Blanchard, MOTR/L

Five years ago on Christmas morning, my family experienced a first: opening gifts with everyone in one room. We sat together as our son Dan, who is autistic, opened presents, tearing the paper, asking for help and looking at us with excitement. We froze, looked at each other in silence, tears filling our eyes. I remember thinking about how “ normal” this felt, like my own childhood Christmases. It was a powerfully emotional moment.


Growing up, my family created magical holiday celebrations that created honored traditions. However, as an adult, I realized it is a pretty anxiety-inducing time for many parents. My desire to make it an epic event for my kids and loved ones became a challenge after autism interfered.  


The pure joy on a child’s face when opening presents is a Christmas morning dream. However, when your child shows little interest—or even distress—in these perceived “picture perfect” moments, such as answering the door to grandparents standing there, sitting down to a traditional dinner, or decorating the tree, it can be crushing to a mom with sugar plums dancing in her head.


The magic of Christmas was what made it so powerful as a child. Believing in things you couldn’t see, feeling the power of faith and tradition can create such strong feelings of love and togetherness. Teaching our kids about the value of giving to someone else, spreading peace, goodwill and being there for others is an essential part of making the holiday season a hopeful, uplifting time in our Western culture.


These were all the things I wanted to impart on my children.  I wanted Christmas to be about spirit, tradition, love and family. (Oh, okay, I also wanted to blow their MINDS with awesome presents and trees and create the giddy delirium of wonder that I remembered as a child.)


You see, my husband and I had long given up expectations of these idyllic Christmas mornings. Usually Dan had to be coerced into “opening” a present with me, then would run out of the room or pace around the periphery, either too overwhelmed or intimidated to join in. This became our norm over the years and looked very different than other families’ Christmas morning rituals. 


Families of children on the autism spectrum deeply want to share this sacred time of year, often making it difficult to “let go” of expectations for our kids—and also for ourselves. We learn quickly that the holiday season tends to involve activities and can place requirements on children that set their family up for disappointment: 


1) High expectations and emotions surrounding traditions including food, family, rituals and celebrations different from the rest of the year.


2) Different schedules, decorations and added activities (e.g. concerts, parties, assemblies, church programs, even rearranged furniture. )


3) “Hidden Rules:” Holidays are abstract concepts based on faith, stories and sentiments that are deeply meaningful and emotionally charged for many people. However, these can be confusing concepts for our more “black and white” thinkers.


4) The frenzied activity and prep combined with the constant overstimulation and onslaught of media, retail pressure, music and lights, all can heighten anxiety. 


5) Like birthdays, Christmas can be a big, fat, month-long reminder for parents that our child is far behind their peers in development. Other parents are buying age-appropriate toys like Legos and action figures while we might be still looking at baby toys, balls and chewy tubes.


6) Family members often ask what your child wants for Christmas and may misunderstand or seem unsupportive or unsympathetic to a request that is perceived “out of the norm.”


7) Children may have no interest in parties, decorations, cookie decorating or other traditional activities that other family members participate in, letting those family members feel disheartened.


Because of the delay in development, I often didn’t know what Dan would want for Christmas, thinking “What kind of a mother doesn’t know what her child wants for Christmas?” I would spend hours researching for toys that would be “good for him” or “therapeutic” and create extensive lists on Amazon with the hope of finding something he would love.


However, once my husband and I learned to change our expectations, Christmas got easier.


We learned to let go of what we wanted and adapted to what we had. Together, we decided what was most important and the few traditions we needed to nourish ourselves during this time. We also considered what we wanted for our other child’s experience and our extended family. Then we consciously decided to work together and push through what we were going to hold strong to. Everything else we let go.


For us it was the Christmas tree—it symbolizes so much more than a decoration to our family. Ask yourself what does your family love to do? Can you escape all of the external and internal expectations this year and distill it down to the real symbols that will feed your family’s soul during this winter?


We approach December as a team, at the ready to comfort and work through the challenging and messy times together. (Temple Grandin calls it “stretching” the child – don’t surprise them, but prep them and stretch them.)


Here are some ways that may help reduce stress for everyone during the holidays:


* Create social stories about your family’s traditions, faith, beliefs and what to expect around the holidays. One example could be “ Christmas at Our House.”


* Reach out to your school staff for help prepping around this time of year.


* Decorate your house slowly and gradually throughout the month of December.


* Don’t be afraid to cut back on social engagements, activities and obligations. This reserves emotional resources and physical energy to use in other areas.


* Travel to home improvement stores to view lights, trees, holiday decorations in advance.


* Honor your child’s differences and model flexibility. Be sure to exhibit the same compassion you are asking others to show your child.


* Communicate your expectations to family, friends, co-workers, visitors, and neighbors. Is it more lights and less food? Be honest about what is too much and what will work within your family’s dynamics.


* Don’t be afraid to start new traditions of your own! (Every Thanksgiving, our family escapes to the coast to go fishing because it works for OUR family.)


* Take one year at a time. Next year could look very different for your family. 


After a few years, it has paid off. Dan has also matured and eventually accepted and even loves the Christmas tree. (Complete with an episode of weeping with the tree comes down on January 2nd.)


Just as you would for any challenging school or novel activity requiring good behavior, prepare and support your child. Have snacks, prep with social stories or intense sensory play beforehand, give extra time to process and model how it’s done.Be sure to check your own rigidity related to holiday traditions. Can you show yourself and others some of the same compassion we will ask them to show our children? Try to demonstrate the same patience with your in-laws, your siblings, your neighbors and your co-workers during this highly social time. Everyone has their own story.


Also, check your own rigidity related to holiday traditions. Can you show yourself and others some of the same compassion we will ask them to show our children? Demonstrate the same patience with your in-laws, your siblings, your neighbors and your co-workers during this highly social time. Everyone has their own story. Can you listen for theirs?


Joanna Blanchard is an occupational therapist and the mother of two children on opposite sides of the autism spectrum. She is the owner of Everybody Stims Occupational Therapy in Vancouver, Washington and can be reached at


This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 print and online edition of Spectrums Magazine.

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