Let's be honest: The winter holiday season can really suck for Autistic people like my son Leo. Leo does not appreciate it when weekly school routines suddenly disappear, and are replaced by random social occasions with loud music, flashing lights, and people who don't even try to understand autism. When the holidays arrive, Leo generally shifts to coping rather than functioning mode, and holiday meltdowns are not uncommon -- not just for my son, but for Autistic people of all ages. No wonder most articles about autism and the holidays focus on "surviving," "getting through," and otherwise managing stress. But does it have to be that way? What if we stop trying to shoehorn our Autistic loved ones into our version of Happy Holidays, and instead join them in their version?
That's what we did for Thanksgiving this year. We put together the most Leo-friendly holiday we could think of -- spending a week at the beach in Mexico -- and we went with him. It turned out to be the best holiday our family has ever experienced. There were no meltdowns. There was no stress about cooking a huge big family dinner. Leo got to relax, and everyone in our extended family group got to witness Leo at his best, got to see what a difference the right environment makes for our guy. When the week was over, not one of us wanted to leave, including Leo. And though part of the success was admittedly because we were at the beach in Mexico, much of what made our holiday happy can be replicated in different environments. What did we do to make it successful? What did we learn?
First of all, back to the part that holidays can be hard. And extra holiday stress aside, we have to understand that the world is already a constantly overwhelming place for Autistic people like Leo, because most non-Autistic people assume Leo should conform to their social and behavioral standards. Which he can and will do to the best of his abilities, as he is a good sport. But it is both excruciating and unfair to expect Leo to follow non-Autistic models of comportment all day long. He needs the freedom to be himself, or else he will implode. My husband and I felt that Leo deserved a holiday in which the expectation model was flipped in Leo's favor.
People -- even well-meaning people -- also tend to patronize Leo instead of treating him like a human being with fully-formed interests and preferences. And when you have a kid who has a hard time communicating, as Leo does, it's only too easy -- too dangerously easy -- to make his life all about following along, and putting up with, whatever the rest of the family does. So, again, we made a deliberate decision to fashion our holiday around what Leo likes to do.
Leo likes swimming, and he doesn't care if it's in a pool or the ocean. He also likes to stay busy, but within a straightforward and predictable framework that allows for choice. With those preferences in mind, I talked with my brother Mike about the layout of his time share in Cabo San Lucas. Mike confirmed that in his opinion the resort would be perfect for Leo, as there would be both multiple pools and a beach right outside the door of our room, and that Leo's entire day could be about swimming and deciding where to swim. Mike was right: staying at a resort worked beautifully, not just for Leo but for our entire family.
We also made sure Leo had lots of visual supports during the parts of the trip that weren't about swimming. In his non-holiday day-to-day life, Leo's visual schedule -- a velcro-anchored sequence of laminated and labeled icons -- helps reduce anxiety by letting him know or plan out upcoming responsibilities and transitions. His communication challenges make it difficult to absorb the same information conversationally or through the more traditional to-do list so many of us use to manage our time, but Leo wants to be on top of his day as much as anyone does. Besides, who wouldn't want to follow a visual schedule that includes a plane trip to the beach?
We also spent years getting Leo ready to take that three-hour flight. For a long stretch, Leo couldn't bear air travel at all, so either our family stayed put or my husband and I took turns hanging with Leo at home, while the other parent took his sisters to visit relatives. But gradually, thanks to maturation, Leo's willingness to try again, engaging/distracting gear like his iPad, and practice wearing noise-blocking headphones, Leo was able to resume flying. And he was a model traveler for almost our entire trip. However I think if we're lucky enough to take him on another international flight, we need to create both Immigration and a Customs icons for his visual schedule. Those two lines were looooong and slightly beyond Leo's tolerance level.
But in general, we were able to keep the Leo stress-provokers and anxiety to a minimum, and the calming factors ever-present. He got to go to the beach or pool as many times as he wanted, whenever he wanted. When he needed to rest, he could choose to go to our room, where we had a kitchenette filled with fruit and sandwich fixings from the resort's on-site grocery store, or he could go into Dude mode, lie on a lounge chair, and have one of us companions ask the roving waiters to bring him pizza or french fries or a smoothie.
Leo sometimes has a rough time sleeping. Not in Mexico. The non-stop exercise of swimming, coupled with the absence of anxiety, ensured two things: he was calm and content enough to join us at full-family dinners in casual down town restaurants every night, and his head hit the pillow the moment he got in bed. Early Leo bed times sometimes meant early Leo risings, but it was only a 20 minute walk from the resort to a local café that served his favorite breakfast pastries, and the café was adjacent to the strolling-friendly marina where we were able to watch fishing boats unload, and Leo got to laugh at the cheeky pelicans.
Another part of the trip's success: Everyone who went with us was a Leo fan, was willing to do what worked best for Leo. There was plenty of time for everyone to go do their own thing too, but it was understood that group activities, like going on water taxi rides, would be Leo-centric. Everyone in our group understood Leo's autistic quirks, and no one felt the need to make excuses for him. Everyone was visibly on Leo's side, as he moved around town in a cloud of doting family members. And because we were with Team Leo, his grandparents and uncle offered to babysit our kids so my husband and I could go on a date. We didn't even have to ask.
More importantly, our Thanksgiving in Mexico was good for everyone. Leo was so happy, so contented. His sisters who sometimes whinge about accommodations we make for Leo (and who, thoughtful as they are, tend to forget we make similar accommodations for their needs and interests all day long too) had nothing to complain about, only activities and now memories to treasure.
I wonder if Leo will think of his hours and hours bobbing in the ocean waves when he's stressed out and needs to go to a mental happy place, now that we're back home. I know I will.
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