10 Tips for Managing Family Gatherings with Your Child with Autism

Health Writer

The holidays are upon us. That means getting together with family and friends. If you have a child with autism, you know how difficult family gatherings can be. Your child might be a picky eater and your relatives don't understand that eating a can of Spaghetti-O's is a satisfactory holiday meal. You might spend your entire day on the lookout for meltdowns. Your child's sensory difficulties might mean he is miserable the entire time. Visiting relatives with kids in tow is never an easy feat, when you have a child with autism it is even more difficult.

Talk to your child about what to expect for several days or weeks before the event. If possible, use pictures to show who will be there. Ask your hosts to send pictures of the rooms you will be in during the visit. This can make your child feel more comfortable. Tell your child what time you will be leaving your house, what time you will arrive at your relative's house, what time you will leave to come home.

If you will be having a sit-down meal, practice at home first. If you don't normally have sit-down dinners with the family, take a few nights to do so to help your child become familiar with how to behave at the table. You might want to have samples of some of the foods that will be served, such as turkey and mashed potatoes and have your child try some of the foods before the holiday meal.

Practice greeting other people. Explain to your child what he can say when he greets relatives and how to respond when someone talks to him. If your child doesn't like being hugged, let him know that is okay and that you will let everyone know that saying hi or shaking hands would be a better greeting.

If you are visiting relatives that are not familiar with your child or autism, prepare them ahead of time for any behaviors might cause confusion. For example, if your child is sensitive to noisy environments and will sit with his hands over his ears, your relatives might see this as rude. If your child backs away when someone tries to hug him, the relative might be offended. If they know prior to the visit what to expect, it can help make the day easier.

Let your relatives know that you will be watching your child throughout the day. If there are behaviors you think could be construed as misbehaving or aggressive, address them before the behavior appears. By talking about certain behaviors first, you diffuse situations that have the potential to make the day a disaster.

When you arrive, ask your hosts if there are areas or rooms of the house that are off-limits. Ask your host if there is a bedroom or other area you can designate as a calm-down area where your child can go if feeling overwhelmed. Give your child a tour, letting him know where he can play, where the bathroom is, where most of the guests will be gathering and what area he can use as a quiet area.

Look around for breakable items or items that might be dangerous. Ask your host if you could move these items to a higher location or out of sight so your child is not in any danger and can't accidently break things.

If your child is on a limited diet (because of medical reasons or because he is a picky eater), consider bringing some food from home that you know he will eat. Send an email or call your host before the event to find out what is being served and that you will be bringing food for your child because of dietary limitations. A hungry child is much more apt to misbehave or have meltdowns.

Bring along toys, videos or other items to keep your child occupied. If possible, set up an area with a few toys where your child can quietly play.

Divide the day up between you and your spouse so you can each spend part of your day watching your child and part of the day enjoying the company of relatives. If you don't have a partner, talk to a relative that is familiar with your child and has spent time with him to give you a little relief and take time to monitor your child so you can relax and socialize with relatives.

Remind yourself and your relatives how far your child has come over the last year. While you have probably had many struggles throughout the year, it is important to remember all the positives and celebrate all the progress your child has made.