This post is rather late, given that Easter was five days ago, however, I hope that it will be useful for next year’s celebration, and/or clear up some confusion if anything unexpected went wrong this holiday. Here is my take on Easter; hopefully it will give aspies, and their parents, a better understanding of what this holiday is like for us. The “Part 1” in my title indicates that I will be covering other holidays as they approach (and hopefully not after they have passed!)
Most neurotypical kids love running around outside finding bright plastic eggs full of candy, however, such a seemingly simple activity can be fraught with difficulty for kids on the spectrum. Problem one is the crowd and the noise: shrieking children are painful, and being surrounded by groups of fast-moving, unpredictable people — even if you know them all — can be very confusing and anxiety provoking. When I was young, I used the behaviour of all the children around me at school and at gatherings to determine what I was supposed to be doing, because I was slow on the uptake with regard to instructions, and didn’t always understand them or the way they were phrased. When all the other kids were running around and doing seemingly aimless things, there was no structure for me to follow, and I became anxious, afraid I would get in trouble for not following directions, or miss out on something important.
Searching for eggs can be tricky too, when you have a one-track mind. An aspie can spend so much energy and focus looking in specific areas that he misses everything around him, and is subsequently an ineffective egg-hunter. It is incredibly irritating when someone else comes along and swipes an egg that was only feet from you, but you missed it because your radar scanner does not have a “wide-beam” setting that allows you to search large areas of space in one go.
The Solution: Avoid the large kid-friendly Easter parties if possible. If you have more than one child, have one parent or a friend take the NT to the event, and have your own mini-party at home. Hold a one-man egg hunt in your yard, where your aspie won’t have to compete with louder, faster kids who are better at generalized searching than they are. If you involve the siblings, have an equal number of eggs and mark them with initials; each kid can only pick up the eggs with her initials on them.
If your aspie insists on attending the aforementioned large kid-friendly party, come prepared with sensory provisions; earplugs, sunglasses, etc. as needed. Also, don’t be afraid to help your aspie in his search; if other parents take issue, advocate on your child’s behalf; his egg-hunting ability, or lack thereof, should not preclude him from having as good a time as everyone else.
It is not uncommon for children, aspie and NT alike, to be considerably disturbed by out-of-the-ordinary characters and figures; ever wonder why in all of your kid’s photos with Santa up until age three or four, she’s screaming? Santa is a strange man with a giant fluffy beard who has abducted your child and is holding her hostage on his knee. That’s disturbing for any child. Moral of the story; if your kid is creeped out by the Easter bunny (and who could blame him; some of those rabbit costumes are scarier than clowns!), don’t make a big deal out of it, get a nice picture of him with his Easter basket instead; it’ll look nicer than a picture of a screaming child and a terrifying rabbit-humanoid anyway.
As many parents are aware, aspies are quite logical in their approach to the world; they are less gullible than normal children with regard to believing in the unprovable. As such, don’t be surprised if your aspie has figured out the truth behind the Easter bunny far faster than you anticipated, and don’t be surprised if he starts explaining that truth to any child he comes in contact with who mentions the giant rabbit. Tact is something that all children must be taught, aspies in particular. You may have to explain in rational terms he can understand, why you would rather he not tell his older cousins that the Easter bunny is in fact a guy in a suit. The rational piece is important; aspies do not respond as effectively to socially motivated explanations as NTs do. Instead of, “It’s not nice,” try, “It will make him sad, and that’s a bad thing because….”
Yes, I know you want your aspie to look nice for church/the family gathering/the photographs, and yes, I’m sure Aunt Martha did spend a lot of time/money/effort finding that shirt and tie for him, and yes, I’m sure all his siblings are cooperating nicely with regard to their clothing. All of that is irrelevant where the autistic sensory system is concerned. Those of you whose kids have tactile defensiveness are well aware of the battle that getting dressed can be. For some reason unknown to the universe, it was decreed that all dress clothes must be made uncomfortable and intolerable, with plenty of lace and awkwardly cut fabric and labels that you can’t cut out without cutting a hole in the back of the shirt and that only go with stiff shoes that no one can balance in or that rub your heels raw. Mix that with a kid who freaks out when his socks aren’t pulled up high enough or his shirts aren’t tucked in precisely, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The Solution: Decide just how vital those nice clothes are. If you’re not one to recognize the religious aspects of the holiday and aren’t going to church, does he really have to look fancy? Will his relatives really care that he’s not in a coat and tie? If the answer is yes, or you just want some pictures of your aspie where he’s not wearing the same thing he wears the remaining 364 days of the year, you can improvise. Set a timer for how long he has to wear them (I recommend no more than ten minutes) or put more tolerable clothes on underneath, such as cotton shirts or long underwear (only do this if you’re going to remain indoors or another relatively cool area; long underwear in April sucks.) Maybe you can take closeup photos that only show your aspie from the waist up, thereby eliminating the necessity for nice trousers to go with his fancy button-down shirt, or bring some spare clothes for him to change into once everyone at the gathering has seen how charming he looks in his Easter outfit. The one thing you don’t want to do is ruin his holiday by forcing him to remain in clothes that feel like sandpaper and fibreglass for the entire day.
Many aspies on specialized diets are unable to eat the same types of food that their NT siblings eat. This poses a problem on holidays that involve mass-produced wholesale candy.
The Solution: Get inventive with your Easter treats: instead of hiding candy in those eggs, try small toys like bubbles, stickers, fun-shaped erasers (especially effective if you can find some in the shape of an “aspie interest-focused” figure), marbles, mini slinkys, coins, etc. Alternatives to this include making your own diet-friendly candy such as honey-covered pecans or gluten-free caramel (more tricky if you are attempting to abstain from sugar.) Find ways of making the non-workable aspects of the holiday work as best you can, so everyone can have a good time!
In general, aspies and crowds do not mix. There is a lot of noise, a lot of visual stimulation, a lot of novel social expectations and an overall level of general chaos. Be aware of your aspie’s “people-meter” and watch for signs of trouble. If you see him withdrawing, getting irritable, or stimming more than usual, these are all signs that he needs to leave where he is and what he’s doing to get some time alone or with one other person who won’t overwhelm him. Depending on your aspie’s age and awareness of his internal states, you may be able to set up a signal for him to use, to indicate to you when he needs to go upstairs, take a walk, play with the dog in the basement, or sit in the car for a while. It’s important that he be able to do these things when he needs to, otherwise his social, emotional and physiological stress levels will overload, and you will wind up with a meltdown on your hands, which will put a damper on everyone’s holiday. If your aspie is unable to communicate to you when things are getting too much, keep an eye on him; ask every half hour or so if he’d like to take a break. If he’s unaware he needs one and doesn’t want to leave, ask him to keep you company while you go upstairs/for a walk/to the basement, etc. or ask if he’ll help you with something that needs passing out or setting up, activities that allow him to remain engaged with the family without forcing direct social contact.
For aspies who have a hard time sitting still for long periods of time, consider letting him skip the church sermon by staying with a friend/relative, or, if he must come, bring things that will occupy him; books, small toys, drawing paper, etc. Don’t be afraid to get up and leave if need be; it will be less embarrassing than the things that might occur if you stay.
Late as it is, I hope some of these tips prove useful to those of you with kids on the spectrum; you may find you can adapt some of them to other holidays as well. Happy Easter!