7 Tips for Including Kids with Autism in Family Events

Extended family can be more challenging than autism

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Thanksgiving Christmas. Getty Images

There are parents and in-laws who work hard to understand autism and make life easier and pleasanter for their children and grandchildren on the spectrum. There are sisters and brothers who fully understand that life with autism can be complex and difficult—and who cheerfully offer babysitting, respite care, and genuine support. Then, there are those parents, in-laws, and siblings who seem unable to be in the same room as an autistic child. 

If you're the parent of an autistic child who struggles to find a way to attend family events without negative comments, criticism, rolled eyes or bad advice, you're not alone. Fortunately, it's not hard to understand why autism might make some family members uncomfortable, and it's even easier to plan your family get-togethers in such a way that you, your child, and your extended family members can all enjoy the experience.

Why Autism Can Be Hard for Extended Family

It's not hard to understand why extended family might have a difficult time with autism, especially if they've never experienced it before. Some of those reasons are understandable; others may be upsetting, frustrating, or even anger-inducing. Here are just a few of the more common reasons for your family members' discomfort:

  • Most typical adults are very uncomfortable with even very slight differences in social communication. We are carefully trained to expect specific responses, and when we don't get them we are made uneasy. More significant differences (a child who is non-verbal, for example) can create real anxiety. This uneasiness may actually be sub-conscious, and your family members may not recognize their discomfort until it's pointed out to them.
  • Myths and misconceptions about autism can be paralyzing. Some people are under the misapprehension that people with autism are contagious, aggressive, or unable to feel affection. These myths can cause family members to pull away from an autistic child.
  • Autistic children who are aggressive can actually frighten extended family, who fear for their own safety and the safety of their children. In some cases, there are legitimate reasons for fear, but these cases are extremely rare.
  • Some extended family members are embarrassed by the fact of having a disabled family member. This may be "wrong," but it's not unusual. Intellectual disability and mental illness are traditionally (if wrongly) considered to be "weaknesses," and people with autism may have intellectual disabilities and are often (incorrectly) believed to be mentally ill.
  • In some cases, extended family members feel "put upon" when asked to make accommodations for disabled family members. They have their ways, and their traditions, and, rightly or wrongly, have no desire to change.
  • Some well-meaning family members may worry that they will approach your child in the wrong way and upset them. Seeing that your child has very specific preferences and is easily thrown off by changes in routine, they may believe it's best to take a hands-off approach and "wait for him to come to me." Of course, they may not understand that autistic children rarely approach others on their own.
  • In some cases, family members may feel pushed aside by an autistic child's lack of response to their warm advances. Autistic children rarely understand that Grandma's big hug and kiss are kindly meant and should be accepted; instead, they're likely to shriek and run away from the unexpected or uncomfortable embrace. When that happens, Grandma feels she's been rejected and has no desire to repeat the experience.

    As a parent, you may well feel that a family's job is to figure out how to welcome your child, autistic or not. But if you really want your family to support your child with autism, or at least feel comfortable around them, you will need to put some supports in place, both for your child and for your family. You may also need to make some tough choices about how much work you really want to put into the process.

    Tips for Bringing Together Extended Family and Your Autistic Child

    You want your family to know and love your autistic child. But you dread the reactions some or all of your extended family have when your child behaves like a person with autism. Fortunately, with some forethought and planning, it should be possible to build an inclusive environment that works for everyone. Here are some tips for making it work.

    1. Consider the situation you're stepping into. Is it worth the pain to bring a child with autism to a family wedding or funeral? If your child is likely to act out, melt down, stim, or otherwise create unwelcome attention, these may not be the right venues for inclusion. Yes, he's a member of the family, and by rights should be welcomed by all—but knowing that's not going to happen, you may choose to sidestep the potential pitfalls.
    2. Offer some autism training. Not every adult in your family cares to be told anything whatever about what autism is or what your child needs. A few, though, will probably be grateful for any information you can provide about what kinds of interactions work, which don't, how to respond to perseveration, and so forth. For those people who are willing to learn, it's worth your while to take time to teach.
    3. Know your own family and make choices accordingly. Your mom may try to pressure you into staying with her for the holidays, but you know she'll freak out if your child does anything she's not expecting. Armed with that knowledge, you may need to stay at a hotel nearby and limit interaction between mom and your child. She may not love it, but it's better than never seeing you at all!
    1. Plan for a quick, graceful getaway. Most people with autism are quickly overwhelmed by lots of noise, lights, smells, and demands for social interaction. Knowing this, it makes sense to set the stage for a graceful getaway when your child shows signs of stress. Yes, you can come to the barbecue—but let family members know "we may need to take off early." If things go better than expected you can always "change plans" and stick around.
    2. Know how you'll handle a difficult moment. You're visiting with extended family for the holidays, and your autistic child is showing signs that he's about to melt down. What do you do?  Hopefully, you've talked with your host ahead of time about a quiet space you can use in just this sort of situation. That way, you and your child can slip out as needed, and return when ready.
    3. Have support on hand. There are situations, such as a visit to a restaurant, theme park, etc., in which it's almost impossible to help an autistic child cope with stress while also being a "good" daughter, son, sister, brother, or parent to siblings. Knowing that that's the case, it's wise to have at least one other adult on hand who can take over, either by helping your autistic child or by supervising the other children (or demanding adults) in your group.
    1. Have a plan for lowering your own anxiety level. If you're like many people, you want your extended family to be happy with you, proud of you, and comfortable with you and your partner and children. When you have a child with autism, though, that's not always possible. You may feel angry, frustrated, or sad as a result. How will you let off steam? Knowing you have somewhere to go with your not-so-happy feelings can make or break a family visit.