Accepting our Differences at Holiday's Table

by Patty Dobbs Gross

Accepting a child with a developmental difference into your heart can be an easy thing to do, as most children with special needs are quite lovable, but tensions can arise when your child is invited to someone else’s expanded dining room table over the holidays. This is a good time of year to begin preparations to give ourselves the gift of peace through gentle educating of extended family and friends, who are usually trying their level best with your child, who is likely trying his or her best as well to navigate the sometimes choppy and roiling social waters of the holiday season.

Creating proper environments in advance is a good place to start. Appropriate is a word that should come to mind when thinking of classroom environments for children with developmental differences, but at family gatherings we don’t tend to think about this ongoing need; to me, this is analogous to taking a holiday break from giving your child the insulin that his diabetic condition requires. Developmental differences don’t take holiday breaks, and all environments your child spends time within should first be considered as to their appropriate nature by way of sensory integration as well as social concerns.

The comfort levels of others are also important to consider on holidays, and this is what makes them so tricky. A deft preventive touch here may be in order, and if Grandma likes routine as much as your child, this doesn't have to be a problem as much as an opportunity to work on the fine art of compromise. They might come to appreciate their shared love of routine and order, and this meta-type thinking is excellent for helping your child take other perspectives at a holiday celebration. You may be selling your child short by way of appreciating their ability to change with patient reasoning, and giving them this chance to learn and to grow with this experience would be a true gift.

And so sometimes Grandma should get her way and other times your child; this just seems fair, but if Grandpa is convinced that more discipline is the obvious answer to the difficulties of the day, someone really ought to set him straight, preferably before the turkey comes out of the oven. Remind him gently that we cannot fix our loved one's problems by force, or even by forceful words, and this goes double once removed. Make him gently aware that it’s usually a mistake to even try, especially with a glass of liquid courage and gallon of pent up frustrations.
This is exactly what happened to us around the time of Dan’s diagnosis at my in-law’s home, who both thought I was parenting him wrong. I wasn’t strict enough to their view, and I didn’t physically correct a child they saw as overly willful; they were right about the willful but wrong about the reason for this as well as my mothering. One Christmas Day we had a fight about this disagreement, with my mother in law’s words, “You’re going to be getting calls from the principal!” ringing in my ears rather than the more traditional sleigh bells when we beat an indignant retreat. (It didn’t end up true about the principal calling me part, but I did end up calling him plenty one cold winter when we disagreed on who was telling the truth, the three fourth grade boys accused of picking on Danny, or the word of a kindergartner who spoke only in echolalic verse about the experience.)

Misunderstandings between loved ones can arise based on vantage point alone, and time as well as education is often needed to bridge the divide. The next season we tried the holiday gathering thing once again, after a year of careful conversations with the my husband’s folks and an extra year of early intervention under our belt, and there were never any more fireworks at Christmas (although it would take two solid decades of time before Dan ended up the most frequent and well behaved visitor from our family to visit my in-laws home in their later years, and certainly the most prolific writer to them.) We lost my mother-in-law several years ago after a long and painful battle with cancer, and so I am grateful I had no desire to hold grudges during those early years.
The holidays belong to us all, and we all want to put our own stamp on the day; this may mean that Aunt Sally and Uncle Bill might have some trouble with your child’s interrupting their planned grace. Autism and related developmental differences cannot be fully understood outside of a social context, and so these moments can be sharp sticking points to a day that might run more smoothly with increased awareness passed around as frequently as the stuffing. A communal moment of silence or short prayer before the meal may be considered a cultural gesture to some, an important religious event to others, or simply a time to practice being very quiet for a few moments for the small fry. Impulse control comes to play here, and although you know it is the lack of it we see on display if the prayer is rudely interrupted, others may see your child’s behavior in a harsher light that may cause sharp words aimed toward your child and rude whispers in the kitchen directed at you.

Holiday gatherings at your grandparent’s dining room table in the 50s were a decidedly different event than the gathering at your sister’s condo in 2015, but behavior codes are still in effect, and if your child has trouble decoding them you are likely to have trouble escaping blame. False blame is likely a familiar feeling to a parent of a child with ASD, but to be blamed by family on a day we all want to be understood is a different story than to be insulted by a sliver of your world such as your hairdresser or down the street neighbor. This fear of intimate judgment can cause you to come down too hard on your child in a mistaken attempt to control them, or too hard on the loved one with a hurtful opinion.

It‘s best to remember that some rules are very hard for a child with a developmental difference to follow. I remember a holiday season when the only places we could travel were to homes where Danny could take over their screens and electronics. This, as you may imagine, put great stress on the holidays by way of push coming to shove energy, with factions of the family in the “hand slapping” camp and others in the “let’s just have some pie and skate across this frozen surface” crowd. You want to avoid people taking easy sides on this, or even taking any side at all save the one of understanding for all concerned.

We stopped visiting any but the most tolerant of homes when Danny was small, but it took a while until he could be comfortable participating in a holiday celebration without the help of a working VCR, and in the meantime we worked on him to understand the concepts of ownership and etiquette enough to be able to leave other people’s electronics alone. Progress here was measured in inches, as there was really so little to fight and so much to learn, accept and explain to others as time passed.

And if your child creates a real mess when everyone is together, whether a social, emotional or physical one, I know it will be you who cleans it up, apologizes, and ultimately pays for it, but I also know it's a small price to pay for the lessons everyone is learning along the way, for although your own spiritual growth usually goes unmeasured after a tough day negotiating peacefully for your child’s rightful place at your family’s table as well as society’s larger banquet, trust me when I tell you that you are developing extraordinary gifts that will reveal themselves as the years pass by virtue of raising a child with a difference.

You are becoming not just tolerant of your own child, but also of your extended family’s challenges for the learning curves they have yet to negotiate, and are learning to forgive them for the ways they may stumble on their way up. This way of thinking is the opposite of being mindblind, a condition that we tend to associate with autism, but one I think we all need to consciously avoid whether we are on the spectrum or not.

Developing mind sight in children is a way to move them forward in a self-reflective and nonjudgmental way, to best develop social and emotional skills as well as resilience. We should let everyone have a front row understanding of the patient negotiations and quiet compromises as they pave the way for peace for the holiday gathering and then communicate this work to even the smallest of cousins, as to do this is to share a measure of the spiritual growth the adults will also take home with the day, along with some wrapped up leftovers and colorful pictures on your cellphone.

It is good to learn early and often that most of us need love most when we're at our most unlovable, and that knowing how it feels to walk in another’s shoes is a good thing, especially when walking the path of a child with a developmental difference. You are not just keeping them good company on their sometimes lonely journey, but also moving together toward a magnificent view.

It was at this point in my writing this piece when I heard on the news about the horrific shooting in San Bernardino at a holiday party, and so like Newtown’s sad December, this season ends up being about unimaginable loss. I have no words to express my sorrow to the people of San Bernardino, who welcomed Dan and I so warmly into both your university as well as your hearts when we gave our first presentation together in your auditorium a decade ago as well as just last month.

I will leave you with my hope that the unconditional love that you foster this troubled holiday season, along with your family's conscious compromises and growing tolerance for each other, will end up making a difference in the world. Our striving for a deeper understanding of each other should begin with the children at all our tables, for they will be the ones to lead us to a more peaceful future...

North Star Shadow with his brother Scout with Jonathan and his parents

North Star Shadow with his brother Scout with Jonathan and his parents