How We Holiday – The Autistic Way!

Written by Angelina H. (she/her)

The holiday season is upon us!

With all the hustle and bustle, the shopping and planning, and the baking and gifting, our traditions are the thread pulling us through this time of year.

If your child is newly diagnosed as autistic, you might be wondering what the holidays could look like for your family this year.

Or maybe your kid has been diagnosed for years, and you want to shake up your traditions because previous years just didn’t work for your family? Either way, read on to see how my family makes the holidays work for us – autistically!

Our family’s experience with this time of year is complicated, since our exposure to these traditions mostly came from when our kid was in public school. For those that aren’t in the know, public school was uhhhh… not great for our family. 

Take one autistic Latinx kid (and their late discovered, but still equally autistic Latinx mom, who had minimal experience with the public school system growing up)… Add in a school that’s nationally recognized for its behavior intervention strategies… Dump them all together in a general education classroom (hold the supports, please!).

Mix, crush, and shake vigorously with staff who have no business being the stewards of young minds. Do this for 1.75 years, then have a worldwide pandemic abruptly halt your motion. This was our recipe for School Disaster.

Throughout these educational endeavors, my kid (hereafter referred to as The Boss) was exposed to all manners of holiday hijinx: the scout elf, Santa Claus, naughty or nice, better think twice!

image description: our dark skinned scout elf, "pinned" on an IKEA LUSTIGT dart board. The board and darts are red, blue, and yellow, and are made of soft felt and velcro.
image description: our dark skinned scout elf, “pinned” on an IKEA LUSTIGT dart board. The board and darts are red, blue, and yellow, and are made of soft felt and velcro.

The Boss took these symbols and their lessons to heart so intensely that the holiday season quickly began to lose its charm and magic for all of us. The holidays are already an overwhelming time of year. Consoling your child throughout it – over things that are touted as fun – isn’t a great time for anyone. 

So, we obviously have had a lot of unlearning to do over the years. And learning. The biggest takeaway? Behaviorism blows. Holiday cheer is not contingent on good behavior. Incorporating that is an ongoing process.

We as parents made a lot of mistakes when we didn’t know there were better ways. We are still making mistakes, but the path we’re on feels right. The internal calamity I used to feel when reading that god awful Elf book, or singing those creepy Christmas songs? I don’t feel that anymore. In fact, I feel peace, at least about this stuff.

So what does this season look like for us?

Our elf & Santa are models of the values we want to instill. Everyone deserves to feel included, loved, and treasured. What better way to spread the magic of the holidays than by freely and intentionally sharing it with all? 

To paraphrase my idol, Mister Rogers: Feelings are natural and permissible, can be expressed, and can be talked about (even, maybe most especially during the holidays!) We are not about to use this magical time of year to reinforce the idea that people (especially children) should not feel or express their feelings about it.

Image Description: Classic photo of Mister Rogers putting on his blue home shoes and wearing his signature red zip up sweater
Image Description: Classic photo of Mister Rogers putting on his blue home shoes and wearing his signature red zip up sweater

One more quote from my idol: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” This goes for feelings and for mistakes. To err is human and all that jazz. We are human, even and most especially kids. They’re allowed to mess up, even and most especially during the holidays. 

So, we have a lot of conversations – repeatedly because we love scripts & loops! There’s a lot of course correcting (always gently) and modeling (always subtly). “No bud, Santa is NOT going to skip our house this year because you yelled at the cat when you were scared.”

And there’s also apologies and acknowledgments throughout because, again, we are human. “Sorry, bud, mama was wrong to tell you that Santa hates messes.” And yes, we correct loved ones on this, too. We are always learning, and we are always trying to do better. And that’s okay!

Our elf, Barnaby, arrives on the star the morning after the tree comes up (whenever that is). Barnaby likes routine, and he likes his presence to be fun for everyone. Barnaby does NOT confusingly make mischief while also reporting every wrong thing we did back to Santa.

He simply shows up somewhere new every day – sometimes with some candy, sometimes with silliness, sometimes just sitting on a table because Parents Are Tired. Yes, I meant it when I said “fun for everyone.”

That means that we aren’t making life harder on ourselves as parents either, because kids really do have the most remarkable ability to find the magic in the most mundane things. Lean into that this year. I beg you. 

image description: our dark skinned scout elf hanging on for dear life to the neck of a Coke bottle coin bank. A fake orchid plant sits next to him because did you actually think I could keep a real one alive???
image description: our dark skinned scout elf hanging on for dear life to the neck of a Coke bottle coin bank. A fake orchid plant sits next to him because did you actually think I could keep a real one alive???

Santa? Well, his job is to spread holiday cheer because it makes him happy…and he can’t really do that if he’s fixated on everything everyone has ever done wrong ever, so there! That’s not fun for him or for his recipients (mental note: not everyone wants or needs Santa to drop by, and that’s ok!)

We don’t want The Boss to love a Santa who, as a grown adult man, spends all his time spying on children or withholding care/inclusion from them (which IS a punishment. You won’t change my mind on this! Don’t try!). 

What kind of impact does that have on a society…to have that kind of a man as a role model? Is that what magic is? Yikes!

Speaking of needs, Santa brings the boring and educational stuff. What can I say? Socks and books make Santa happy! We parents get credit for the fun stuff because my kid is not gonna be the one making others feel like they weren’t “good enough” this year.

We might no longer buy into the behaviorist crap our society weirdly peddles extra hard around this time of year, but we know other parents do. Also? We live in a horribly inequitable society where so many families cannot make even the boring stuff happen. All kids don’t deserve to feel bad. Don’t correct my grammar. 

“All kids don’t deserve to feel bad.”

So, if you’ve made it this far, I have a fun story to share. Also please feel free to ask questions, if you have them, about the specifics of our holiday fun. You can reach me at the links below.

Story:

The Boss has had an extremely loose tooth for the past few days. We hadn’t gone anywhere all week, because we have to be home when it happens in order for The Boss to feel safe.

If you don’t remember the experience of losing a tooth: it’s messy and gross and can be really scary/overwhelming when you’re a little kid. Heck, I’m a grownup, and I’m not the biggest fan of it either. 

Anyway, last night, I miraculously outlasted The Boss at bedtime, so I used the opportunity to finally fill up their advent calendar. Side note: It was December 11th – Remember when I said I make it fun for everyone? Time is fake, deadlines are arbitrary, and mommy is doing her best. I got Barnaby in on the action, too, because I wanted to!

Well, a Christmas miracle happened the next morning…scratch that, let’s be real: the next afternoon because we’re night owls (time is fake!). 

The Boss’s tooth finally came out! Our tooth fairy always brings chocolate coins & money (and lets The Boss keep their teeth in a special box because these things are supposed to be whatever fun looks like for each kid, dammit! Are you sensing a theme here?)

So, when we got up today, it really looked like Barnaby had stopped by to see his friend, The Tooth Fairy, and brought a little souvenir on her behalf for The Boss just in time for their tooth to fall out. 

Image description: Closeup of the top cubby in my entertainment center. A burlap advent calendar with triangular red/green pockets is strung across the top. Our family’s dark-skinned scout elf is poking out from the gray bin in the cubby and holding a black string with a gold chocolate coin attached at the end. Underneath this is a homemade wooden Christmas countdown calendar showing 14 days to Christmas.
Image description: Closeup of the top cubby in my entertainment center. A burlap advent calendar with triangular red/green pockets is strung across the top. Our family’s dark-skinned scout elf is poking out from the gray bin in the cubby and holding a black string with a gold chocolate coin attached at the end. Underneath this is a homemade wooden Christmas countdown calendar showing 14 days to Christmas.

My post-bedtime chore started out as just me going through the motions for my kid. I don’t know about you, but I am STRUGGLING to feel the joy this year. But this morning (errrr, afternoon) really has me remembering that holiday magic might be real after all.

#ThankYouForComingToMyTEDTalk

P.S. : The Neurodivergent Teacher is RAD. Here is the inspiration for this post: https://fb.watch/9ST4IEKsAj/

Image description: yours truly - brown buzzed hair and an impatient twinkle in my eye because I hate having my photo taken but know this will probably come in handy as a bio pic one day. I am sitting (awkwardly) in front of some greenery at a table covered in blue plastic. I am wearing the raddest X-Wing shirt you’ve ever seen in your life, with a Death Star & TIE Fighter in the background. The shirt is black and the graphics are blue, purple, pink, and cream color blocks. Seriously, it’s rad as hell. I am also sporting a gray Audacious Autistics Podcast pride mask. Check them out!
Image description: yours truly – brown buzzed hair and an impatient twinkle in my eye because I hate having my photo taken but know this will probably come in handy as a bio pic one day. I am sitting (awkwardly) in front of some greenery at a table covered in blue plastic. I am wearing the raddest X-Wing shirt you’ve ever seen in your life, with a Death Star & TIE Fighter in the background. The shirt is black and the graphics are blue, purple, pink, and cream color blocks. Seriously, it’s rad as hell. I am also sporting a gray Audacious Autistics Podcast pride mask. Check them out! https://audaciousautisticspodcast.podia.com/

Angelina H. (She/Her)

Angelina is…tired. But, when she has the wherewithal, she’s unschooling her kid, reading for That Au-some Book Club, and smothering her leopard gecko and rescue cat – usually in that order.

Oh, and always unlearning & learning. Constantly. In fact, she can’t wait to look back on this article in a few years and cringe over how it wasn’t radical enough! She believes in community, mutual aid, and gluten-free pie. Social justice is her jam because the future can be, must be, and will be accessible & affirming. 

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2 Replies to “How We Holiday – The Autistic Way!”

  1. I wish I was taught this version of Santa and Elf as a kid instead of the original harmful ones that led me to walk on eggshells. Thank you for sharing your au-some parenting skills!

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