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Surviving the Holidays While Raising Teens With Autism: From Tears to Joy

This past weekend I watched “Charlie Brown Christmas” with my family, which is no mean feat. Corralling my husband and two teenagers, my oldest of whom is on the severe end of the spectrum, can be challenging. It’s a tradition with the McCaffertys, and eventually I prevailed. My youngest paced around the living room, my husband got up three times to check on things, and my oldest at one point put a pillow over his face, but we watched the damn show.

I’ll take victory where I can get it.

I got to thinking about Christmases past, and how what is supposed to be a joyous holiday had at times been grueling. There was the year Justin showed absolutely zero interest in any of his gifts; we couldn’t even get him to open half of them. Then there was the year I was overwhelmed by my kids’ behavior at my in-laws Christmas celebration and ended up crying, and I’m a girl who generally now only cries at Hallmark commercials and Toy Story 4. All in all, there have been some tough holidays, celebrations where at times the only thing we seemed to be celebrating was when it was over.

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The truth is, chez McCafferty, we are done with that, and I am eternally grateful.

My nineteen-year-old, non-verbal, profoundly autistic son now comes happily downstairs on Christmas morning, opens everything, immediately attaches himself to one gift, and we’re thrilled. My other son still shows enthusiasm for his stash even at the ripe old age of fifteen, and for that we are grateful. For years there have been holidays with no tears, just joy.

If you had told me that would be the case ten years ago I would never have believed it.

So if you’re just starting out on your autism journey with your kid or kids, just know, it can get better even when it seems impossible that it will get better. While you’re getting through the difficult years try these strategies. Go for a shortened period of time that will get you through gift opening and a meal, skip dessert (or take it home with you) and get out. Bring your kid’s favorite foods with you and tell the host in advance whatever you’ll need to do so they can eat. Take a favorite toy with you and hide it until you see if it’s necessary to bring it out in case your child doesn’t warm to his or her presents. Tell everyone in advance you won’t be staying long so there won’t be any disappointments. Find out if there’s a quiet place your child can go in case he or she gets overwhelmed.

Find out if there’s a quiet place you can go if you get overwhelmed, and make sure wine is involved.

We all have huge expectations for the holidays. Sometimes it’s good to just bring them down a notch, and hope for a good hour or two and call it a day.

Eventually, I learned to do that. And it made for much happier holidays.

And if all else fails and it’s just miserable, hang in there and remember there’s always the chance it will be better next year. It has gotten significantly better for my family, and for many others that I know.

Have faith.

Happy holidays to everyone!

For more on my family visit my blog at

Follow me on Facebook at Autism Mommy-Therapist

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