Merry & Bright

An illustration by Emily Flake of a child playing quietly with a train next to a frantic holiday sce...
Illustration by Emily Flake

Holiday Advice For Parents Of Kids With Autism

Have yourself a merry little whatever works for your family.

Written by Johanna Gohmann

For some parents of kids with autism, the holidays can be extra challenging. The pressure to do all kinds of junk that your kid straight up does not enjoy can make you want to crawl under a large pile of snowman inflatables. And when your kid is true to himself and finds little joy in all of the yuletide slop that kids are “supposed” to love, it can make you feel exactly like one of those snowmen when the plug is yanked: deflated.

Below I offer some lessons I’ve learned over the years about how to navigate this time of year in a way that feels a little less fraught, and leaves more room for admiring festive lawn decor instead of wishing to burrow beneath it.

Maybe old Saint Nick has no business seeing us when we’re sleeping.

When my son was very little, I really wanted him to enjoy going to see Santa. It seemed important? The photos! The tradition! He did not enjoy going to see Santa. In fact, he screamed like I had shown him a photo of Predator and said that was his new father.

Please don’t feel like you are missing out on some major parenting milestone if your child has no interest in the man in red. Want your kid to sit on a bearded stranger’s lap? Take them to a Bon Iver concert.

He does enjoy presents these days, but they aren’t things typically found in the toy section of Target. One year his Christmas list included both a shower nozzle and a plastic model of the human heart.

Likewise, my son was not so into the idea of Santa chilling in the living-room with milk and cookies while everyone was asleep. Solution? We left a plate of cookies outside. Which, really, if you think about it, what is Santa doing just kicking back with snacks on your couch? Is he going to watch an episode of White Lotus as well? You have presents to deliver to every child in the world, my dude. Get those Oreos to go.

Embrace your own version of the holiday classics.

Perhaps you have a fantasy of your family gathering with cocoa to enjoy a holiday fave like The Polar Express or It’s a Wonderful Life, but your child’s Christmas wish is to watch MetroNorth trains on Youtube. Or Parkour Chases on Youtube. Or Scary Clown Parkour Chases on Youtube.

Or maybe they do want to watch The Polar Express, but only the same 20 second clip.

While this might not align with the holiday tableau you’d imagined, remember that it is also not that big a deal. Especially because The Polar Express is a truly terrible movie, and 20 seconds of CGI Tom Hanks is more than enough.

Try not to put too much weight on what is considered the “traditional” Jimmy Stewart-sanctioned ways to celebrate. It may be that for some of us, every time a Poughkeepsie-bound train door dings, an angel gets its wings.

Sometimes the best gift is just being present.

To say there’s a lot of emphasis on gifts at the holidays is like saying there’s a lot of emphasis on water in the ocean. And some kids with autism would sooner heave their presents into the Atlantic than sit and tear gift wrap off Hot Wheels.

I remember when my son was small, he regarded many of his toys with about as much interest as if we’d handed him a sock full of gravel. It embarrasses me to admit it now, but this bummed me out. I really wanted him to like Lite Brite. Which is absurd, as I’m pretty sure no one actually likes Lite Brite, including me.

He does enjoy presents more these days, but often they aren’t things typically found in the toy section of Target. One year his Christmas list included both a shower nozzle and a plastic model of the human heart.

Perhaps you have a fantasy gathering with cocoa to enjoy a holiday classic like The Polar Express, but your child’s Christmas wish is to watch MetroNorth trains on Youtube.

My advice? Don’t hesitate to give your kid the things that truly interest them or bring them joy. (Within reason, obviously. When our son requested an industrial laundromat dryer we had to draw a line.)

Also, maybe try and put less emphasis on the stuff, and more emphasis on the moment? Because gifts are crap-shoot and there’s no accounting for taste. At least that’s how I explain the quilted cat nightgown my Dad gave me when I was 14.

All I want for Christmas is for you to turn this off immediately.

My kid hates the Mariah Carey song. (You know the one.) Like he shouts at a pitch that hurts my eyeballs until I turn it off. This was a hard one for me, but now I just play it in the shower, which is better anyway, as it allows me to promise I won’t even ask for snow while dancing naked.

The family feast isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

I come from a massive family. I have six (very tall and very loud) brothers and a sister, and a baseball team's worth of nieces and nephews. Also? My family likes to dine at a Japanese steakhouse on Christmas eve. While my son adores his extended family, the list of things he does not adore includes tight, crowded spaces, unpredictable noise levels, and onion volcanoes shooting flames mere inches from his face.

Be sure to bring those noise cancellation headphones when you travel, and let your kid opt out of any shrimp-throwing dining experiences if it isn’t their jam. And if there’s a big family meal at home, it’s just fine to eat (as we often do) in a quieter adjacent space. This has the added benefit of being both more Covid friendly, as well as avoiding-relatives-opinions-on-Trump's-2024-run friendly.

Christmas Eve will find me (possibly in the car by myself for 10 minutes).

Raising my son is just inherently different than the experience most people have of parenting, and it can sometimes feel a little exhausting to parent in front of people who, no matter how loving or well-intentioned, don’t quite understand this. So I try to be aware of the fact that my kid might not be the only one who “needs a break” during the holidays, or who needs to check in on their zones of regulation. (Note: Chardonnay is not necessarily a good strategy for moving oneself out of the Red Zone. I have done the research.)

In some ways, I feel like navigating the holidays with an autistic child echoes many lessons from The Grinch, as you are reminded to pull the tinsel from your eyes and remember what this time of year is really all about. And it isn’t Uncanny Tom Hanks or Wish Lists or the roast beast. It’s about being with the people you love most in the world, leading with a generous heart, and celebrating all the light in your life.

I dare say if you can hold on to this knowledge, your heart may very well grow three sizes. Yes, your kid may then ask you to show him on his plastic model where exactly you are experiencing this growth. Just tell him somewhere near the right ventricle.