I was so thrilled to have two of my seasonal pieces published by Spinoff Parenting in the lead up to Christmas. They were about tips and strategies to help ease the pressure and navigate the challenges of Christmas for kids with autism and kids in general. I’m aware the website has been fairly quiet since (although the Facebook page is still ticking along) and it’s not due to a lack of ideas when it comes to writing. If I could have some telepathic decoder capture the articles I write while driving the car that would be brilliant!
During the school term I have 3-6 hours per week away from Miss 3 (who has a variety of special needs) and although that time is mainly spent running errands or undertaking domestic tasks that cause her sensory distress, sometimes I can squeeze in some writing as well. Those precious hours are also a much needed pressure valve to release some of the tension from being constantly with a little person who studies my every facial expression, who is incredibly sensitive to emotional undercurrents and needs me to project happy calm 16 hours per day, and requires enormous amounts of support for everything from emotional self-regulation, to being comfortable in her body, OT work, communication, self-care, and play.
During the school holidays this turns into no hours per week and her anxiety being hugely escalated by the disruption to our routines. The summer holidays mean that not only is kindy on holiday but so are all of our other support staff (from occupational therapist to doctors). Events like severe summer storms can cause massive sensory distress and trigger several days of almost constant dysregulation that is exhausting for both of us. She sleeps in my bed because it gives her a sense of stability and security. We use a lot of social stories and visual communication to talk about our plans for the day. There’s an increase in alternative communication: selective mutism, echolalia, and needing repetitive (and repeatable) scripted dialogue exchanges.
It all adds up to is me investing my energies into my daughter and storing story ideas (like nuts for the winter) for when I have more time. What I want to write about this year is the importance of embracing the new year with a growth mindset, how to encourage and develop character (rather than content) in our young children, how the Danish / Scandanavian parenting and schooling model compares to the NZ / UK / USA model and why we should consider adopting it. I also want to write more gardening and cooking pieces. I’m particularly interested this summer in the exploring the economies of a kitchen garden as well as taking a look at making use of vegetable parts that sometimes end up on the compost (like carrot greens, radish leaves, and squash blossoms).
I wrote recently about what it’s like parenting a child with autism at Christmas and I find myself continuing to reflect on the challenges different families experience at this time of the year. One of the topics under discussion in parenting forums this week is ‘Should children be punished for bad behaviour leading up for Chistmas?’, more specifically, should they be threatened that Santa is watching and won’t give them presents?
One side of the argument, is that children should be told that Santa (or a designated Elf on the Shelf) is watching and will punish children by leaving them a lump of coal (or a potato) in their Christmas stocking if they are naughty in December. Others suggest spending Christmas morning in bed and refusing to give out presents until 4pm (or a few days later) once children are suitably chastened. Some suggest that each time children are really naughty, a present is removed from under the tree and the child has to give it to charity.
My heart goes out to parents who are exhausted and struggling at the end of a long year, wishing for some much needed rest for themselves to recharge batteries, and all of the stress (logistical and financial) that planning Christmas involves. The reality, however, is that we need to constantly put on our superhero costumes, dig deep for forgotten reserves of energy, and remember that our tiny egotistical bundles of dark energy are exhausted children struggling with a see-saw of excitement, fear, change, and emotional confusion. They are also tired at the end of the year; they are tired from growing, from learning, from trying to keep their emotions in check, and they are likely to explode at home because that’s where they feel safe to do so. They are trusting us to love them unconditionally (even if it’s through gritted teeth).
Stop and have a think about what may be triggering your kids to explode. Are they tired? Are they hungry? Are they eating a lot of ‘seasonal treats’? Are they excited about school holiday adventures but then lashing out at the end of the day (or the next day)?
School holidays mean that all of their usual structure has suddenly disappeared and that can be as frightening as it is exciting. Talk with them about what routines are going to stay in place (i.e. will television still be restricted to certain times of day, will bedtime still be at the same time, will parents still be working on certain days). Come up with a visual planning chart for the school holidays and talk with your kids about any planned activities, holidays, play dates, or family visits. Make a list of activities they can do at home (or cut them up in strips and have them pull them out of a hat).
Talk to them about any expectations you have: to spend time reading a book each day, do an art activity, spend time outside, and play quietly with toys? Some kids might feel more comfortable having their free time largely unstructured, while others may thrive on digital timers and structured activities for at least part of each day.
If you’re at home with the kids, take the opportunity to try changes to diet. Put them on a wholefoods diet as much as possible and avoid anything with artificial additives and preservatives (they have a cumulative effect in the body, especially in little bodies, and can have a big impact on behavior). Drink water and milk, eat lots of fresh fruit, make salads, do home baking. Ditch the muesli bars, chips, and cookies, and make smoothies, carrot cake, or flourless pancakes. Help get the kids involved in meal planning, supermarket shopping, meal preparation, and gardening.
We spend eleven months of the year taking responsibility for our parenting decisions, lets not shift the blame to Santa just because Christmas is approaching. If you want to factor Santa into discussions with your kids then try shifting the discussion from a negative / blame framework to a positive one; instead of threatening coal, try saying something like ‘Mum and Dad and Santa can see how hard you’ve been working all year and it seems like you’re tired and struggling at the moment.” Talk with them about the things they like about themselves and feel they are doing well, and also about the things they feel are difficult. Praise them when they are doing things well.
Consider giving only a few small presents from Santa that they can play with before the main gifts are unwrapped. Maybe I’m selfish but I want my daughter to be thrilled that I’ve spent time saving up and planning her main present rather than thinking it’s magically appeared from Santa’s workshop! Knowing that their main presents have come from family reinforces an understanding of being loved.
Spend time in the lead up to Christmas talking about what it means to your family. In some parts of the world, it’s a time of beautiful lights, decorations, and fattening foods because the outside world is pitch black most of the day and covered in snow (which might look pretty on Christmas cards but is icy and cold most of the time). It’s a little bit different when Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer with blue skies and sunshine! Even if you’re not celebrating the birth of Christ, talk about why you are giving gifts as a family. Talk about celebrating all the good things you have, the things you are grateful for, and the people that you love. Maybe you could make a gratitude jar, flower, or tree. Older kids might like to keep a gratitude journal for the holidays (bonus – it also helps them practice their writing!)
Step away from the commercial aspects of the holidays, help them to make their own Christmas cards, make Christmas crackers, and write letters to friends they’re going to miss over the holidays. Encourage them to think about others by choosing something they like to eat to donate to a food parcel collection, or by mowing the lawns for grandparents, or washing cars during church service.
Tell them every single day that you love them.
For more helpful strategies – consider attending a free Incredible Years Parenting Programme which provides useful strategies for play, praise, academic, social and emotional coaching, positive reinforcement, limit setting, natural and logical consequences, problem-solving and effective communication skills.
If you’re the parent of a special needs child and the thought of Christmas has you reaching for a glass of wine, don’t worry, not you’re alone! This time of year the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) parenting forums are full of questions, advice, and those needing a safe space to share that they’re struggling after yet another Christmas meltdown. It’s a tough time of year for many families and children; end of term / year fatigue from school, exams, financial stress, family obligations. Let’s face it, as awesome as Christmas is, it comes with special stress for those organizing it.
It also poses an extra stress on kids with autism. There is familiarity in comfort, routine, and the familiar. Christmas means change in the home, kindy / school, shopping malls, supermarkets etc. Suddenly there are decorations, Christmas music, and images of this guy in a red suit everywhere. There are crowds, noise, and other sensory evils (like balloons). There are also likely to be a slew of invitations to parties, parades, shared meals, family gatherings etc.
Find a quiet time before the Christmas season to reflect on what Christmas means to you personally, and to your family. You may want to have a family gathering where you talk about what Christmas means to you all and each choose one tradition that you think is really important. Obviously, the bigger your family is, the more negotiation this may involve! I think one advantage for me as a single parent is that I can unilaterally make the choice to put Miss 3’s needs first and miss out on a lot of the Christmas celebrations that I would otherwise enjoy. It’s not always so easy for those with conflicting demands from a partner or where there are neurotypical (NT) siblings who have events they want to be part of.
If your autistic child is old enough and verbal enough to discuss Christmas events with, involve them in planning which events to be part of and which events to skip (and always have a back up / escape plan that will let you leave early and keep your child’s self-respect intact).
Keep in mind that Christmas parades, parties, and concerts are not only a variation to routine but can involve huge amounts of sensory input. You might want to aim for a smaller, local events rather than the biggest one in the city centre where tens of thousands of people will attend resulting in roads and bus services being blocked / hugely disrupted.
Clearly identify the change in routine and pre-warn them. Show them photos of where you are going and what to expect. Consider creating a social story to help them understand the sequence of events and what will be expected of them.
If they have sensory issues, take along items that will help them feel more settled (whether that’s a weighted toy, a fidget toy, or noise-cancelling headphones).
Restrict the number of events that you attend. It’s easy for them to accumulate in the weeks leading up to Christmas; remember to include in your calculations any Christmas celebrations / pageants etc. at kindy / school, church, etc. as well.
For young children, you may want to start preparing them for Christmas as early as 01 Nov (depending on their age). I started introducing Christmas books and cds (from the library) early with Miss 3 to help her get comfortable with the concept before it started at kindy. I didn’t want her anxiety to be triggered or for her to feel excluded because the other kids knew who Santa was or recognized popular Christmas tunes and she didn’t.
I would have been quite happy to put up our miniature Christmas tree the week before Christmas; instead, it went up mid-November to ease her anxiety. They sang a song about Christmas trees at kindy and she started an anxiety attack that all the trees she loves outside kindy would be stolen and turned into Christmas trees; this transferred to a fear our Christmas tree would be stolen from storage. Long story short, we drove across town the next day to collect our tree from Nana and Poppa!
Think about a visual method for counting down to Christmas. You might want to do an advent calendar (some families do) , or download an app, or simply mark off days on a Calendar.
Most ASD kids do not like surprises; pre-warn! Here are some ideas from different parents:
- I discuss Christmas presents with my son and give him a budget. He researches what he wants and tells me. He knows exactly what he’s getting for Christmas and is happy that it’s exactly what he wants!
- I buy my daughter one present for Christmas. I tell her in advance what I’m saving up for and show her pictures. Santa gives her a few small items in her santa sack as unwrapped treats to eat (like chocolate and an orange).
- I wrap all the presents but for my autistic child, I attach photos of what’s inside. They still enjoy unwrapping them but they’re more comfortable knowing what’s in them. Their siblings have the choice of photos too.
- I take photos of everything before I wrap them and then let my daughter choose if she wants to open them as a surprise or point to items on my phone and then be handed the presents in that order.
- I’m getting my child a bunch of small practical gifts (like sensory items, or craft activities, or a sea shell to represent a beach visit) and am going to let them open one thing each day from when kindy ends. They’ll help to give us something to do each morning to cope with the change of routine and it will make Christmas Day less overwhelming.
- Remember to warn relatives if certain items are likely to cause sensory issues. You may want to ask them to pre-wash clothes and remove tags for instance.
Wonderful and exciting though Christmas Day is, it can also be overwhelming and carry with it a range of expectations.
- Discuss in advance what the schedule will be for Christmas Day. Consider creating a social story so that they know what the order of events will be. For instance, when do they open presents? When will meals be? What food will be served? Are family coming to visit? Are you driving to visit family?
- Identify correct etiquette for receiving a gift. Teach them to say Thank You. Explain rules and expectations; i.e. “Sometimes we receive presents we like. Sometimes we receive presents we don’t like. We should say thank you for each present we receive.”
- Give them a list of everyone they will see Christmas Day. Help them think about how they will greet each person. Do they want to give Grandma a hug? Do they want to just wave at that funny smelling Great Aunt they only see once a year? Make sure that extended family understand how important consent is (at any age) and that it is entirely up to your child if they want physical contact. Help your child to understand it is important to greet each person (with a wave, or eye contact and saying hello) but that it is up to them whether they want a hug / cuddle.
- Use a portable timer / clock / watch for visiting other people’s houses and make sure you leave at the time you have pre-agreed with your child (to avoid a meltdown). If necessary, have the family take two cars so that you can leave early if your ASD child isn’t coping.
- Make sure there is food they will enjoy eating on Christmas Day. It’s all very well wanting a traditional roast with all the trimmings, but if this is something your child won’t eat then don’t force the issue on a day that is already stressful for them! If they want to eat a plain cheese pizza, or seaweed and crackers, or a marmite sandwich + apple, then let them. Make sure they are included and have the option of trying other foods but have food they are comfortable with as well.
How to inspire your child’s imagination
Miss 3 (ASD) used to hate her dolls wearing clothes; I simply wasn’t allowed to dress them. I think it’s because she has a sensory processing disorder and I guess she assumed the dolls would find clothing as uncomfortable as she does. Then we read This is my dollhouse by Giselle Potter; it’s a great picture book that values imagination and creativity over money. It’s also a good reminder to parents that children don’t inherently need store bought items to be happy in their play (and for those with special needs, commercially made dolls clothes may cause anxiety of failure due to being too fiddly).
How to make your own dolls clothes (cheaply and easily)!
Consider buying some short pieces of colourful ribbon from a local crafts emporium (and let your child help pick), some scraps of fabric (handkerchiefs will also work), and some colourful tape – Kmart is great for this.
Making clothes this way means that you can change outfits cheaply and easily each day! Having a doll fashion show is also a calming activity for filling a rainy afternoon.
I posted last year about how easy it is to make your own Christmas Crackers (bonbons). I love that personalizing them means that you have full creative license to create different themes each year. Last year, we did a Christmas theme for the visual aesthetic and I hand decorated wooden beads (my daughter still has them!). This year I thought I would celebrate New Zealand’s summer with an ocean theme as well as changing the gifts inside to match Miss 3’s interests (she has autism and adores things in miniature).
- Cracker snaps
- Cardboard tubes (inner tubes from paper towels are perfect, just cut in half).
- Your choice of cracker filling.
- Blue crepe paper
- Super glue (or glue gun)
Note: Davids Emporium sells cracker snaps for 30 cents each just ask at the sales counter.
For the inside, I did little plastic bags containing: Christmas joke, stickers, and a miniature Christmas cookie / Christmas pudding etc. These will inevitably get gifted to Miss 3 for her dollhouse 🙂 They are adorable and were a wonderful find in the button / crafts section, again at Davids Emporium.
- Take a cracker snap and place it inside in your tube (it should stick out each end with a comfortable amount to pull on). Lightly sellotape it at each end to hold in place.
- Assemble your cracker filling and slide it into the tube. I put mine in a tiny sealed plastic bag.
- Roll the tube in crepe paper and tie at each end with twine; make sure that you have enough paper at each end to cover the cracker snap that is sticking out & to comfortably pull it. Super glue (or glue gun) on the sea shells.
How do I overcome writer’s block?
The most obvious answer is: write. Life isn’t always that easy though. I have written very little on the blog since the night the ambulance came and took us both to the hospital E.R. My little one was in respiratory distress with croup and I can still vividly picture sitting on my kitchen floor with the lights on, trying to count breaths out loud by keeping a finger on the base of her barely moving throat and praying for the ambulance to hurry. Bless the calm emergency dispatcher talking to me the entire time on the speakerphone cellphone. To further complicate matters, I was desperately trying not to throw up (even more so when three burly paramedics entered the kitchen). I spent the ambulance ride sucking on a homemade ice-block, my unconscious daughter in my arms, trying not to vomit in a very unladylike fashion all over the ambulance interior.
I’m extremely fortunate that my parents live in the same city as me; they spent an hour driving in and arrived around 3am. The nurses then whisked me off to the adult E.R. and I only caught a short glimpse of my daughter the next morning when she got discharged hours before me. I turned out to have a nasty cocktail of gastro, flu, and possibly a sprinkling of croup to top it off. They wanted to keep me in hospital for a few days but that wasn’t an option as a solo parent of a special needs child (with 24/7 care). As it is, she still has nightmares, months later, about being separated from me at the hospital.
The website continued ticking along as if by magic. That’s the wonder of online publishing, you can have posts lined up weeks or months in advance. You can add new ones and shuffle old ones around and simply let things take care of themselves. The website continued looking bright and shiny while, in reality, our lives have been a valley of darkness with quarantine (due to her fragile health), her surgeries to clear her ears, reduce her turbinates, remove her adenoids, and remove her tonsils, and a horrifically painful recovery period.
There’s been the very difficult, painful, time consuming, and paperwork laden process of having her autism, anxiety, and sensory processing disorder identified (as well as the recurrent abdominal pain + Irritable Bowel Syndrome). There’s been all kinds of behavioural and safety issues because she simply could not cope with the world. I haven’t written up posts but I have shared a few about fatigue, disruptive behaviour, sensory anxiety, and the daily struggles of neuro-divergent kids. There all kinds of ways in which she needs extra support and that means my days tend to run for 16-18 hours with hopefully 6 hours sleep.
Take today, for example. She slept in till 4.45am (sleep is a major issue in our household). As well as actively looking after her, there’s been: laundry, changing bed linens, making herb bread rolls from scratch (which also included grinding the sorghum flour and picking the fresh herbs), making bread from scratch, supermarket shopping, mowing the lawns, spraying weed poison along the edges, cooking chicken (pan frying to brown the skin, baking, making chicken stock with the juices and bones, and then making chicken broth soup with dumplings), dishes, so many dishes, giving Miss 3 and the dollies a bath due to a major poo incident, tidying up all the miniature toys that have covered the floor since this morning, practising counting, cutting out cardboard wheels and using push-pins to turn a box into a car, doing occupational therapy / sensory regulation exercises, etc…Her soy allergy, which includes emulsifiers and vegetable oil, as well as needing to follow a Failsafe list of additives to avoid, means a whole foods diet which means a lot of time in the kitchen (both preparing and cleaning!). The only reason I could do the outdoor stuff or write up this post was because I paid a special needs carer to be with us for 3 hours this afternoon. If it sounds like I’ve chosen a busy day to write about, the reality is that every day is that busy (normally busier because there would often be a medical appointment to fit into the morning as well as everything else) and what’s unusual is that I actually had some help today instead of being entirely on my own.
Our circumstances are isolating so it’s nice to know that there are people from all around the world that read these posts. Hopefully, I will start writing more often – if only because there are so many recipes floating around on scraps of paper!
When starting potty training it’s a good idea to think about how you’ll keep your toddler motivated. Some toddlers will simply want to be ‘just like my big brother/sister’; others will respond to lots of praise; others need something tangible to work towards and that’s where reward charts can be useful.
Potty Training! It’s something that we all experience as parents as we help our children transition out of nappies. I’ve posted previously on:
- When is my child ready to start potty training?
- How can I help prepare my child for potty training?
- What methods can I use for potty training my toddler?
Sometimes toddlers need a little extra positive reinforcement to start (or stick with) potty training. Reward charts can be a great way of helping them to see progress, learn about delayed gratification, and learn about working towards achievable goals at a young age.
There are lots of great ideas online for printing out your own reward chart that you can stick on the fridge (like these free to print charts). The important thing is to choose a theme that will tie in with your toddlers interests. I liked this magnetic one from Kmart because I knew Little Miss would like moving the magnets around.
Tip: If you have multiple children, it’s a good idea to instigate reward charts for siblings as well to prevent tantrums, jealousy, and rivalry! If your 2 year old is toilet training, maybe your 5 year old can have a reward chart for homework or chores.
These need to be relevant to your child’s interests, realistic for your budget, and appropriate in scale. A trip to the park, a book, a small toy, are more realistic then promising a trip to Disneyland! Also, keep in mind that a reward comes after the action has been successfully taken (and a bribe comes before).
Sit down with your child and be really clear:
- what they will receive points for (i.e. stickers on their reward chart),
- what rewards they are working for, and,
- how many points they need to obtain those rewards.
Encourage your child to brainstorm with you what those rewards are going to be. Possible rewards include:
- Items (toys / books)
- Activities (trips to the park, library, the zoo)
- Food (jellybeans, McDonalds, restaurant)
You may want to start off with reward stickers for:
- each wee / poo in the potty (or toilet), and then move towards
- stickers for staying dry at home that day, then,
- staying dry at kindy, then,
- staying dry overnight.
The important thing is to scaffold your expectations and help your child towards success at a pace that’s realistic to them. Remember that every child is different.
Toys or books can be easily tailored to your child’s interests. It’s a good idea to have a mix of rewards that they can work towards (with larger or more expensive items requiring more points). If you take them to a store to choose rewards, it’s a good idea to guide their choices by offering them a few options and letting them select one.
It’s also a good idea to guide them towards choosing toys that you were thinking about getting them anyway and which you can afford. Consider items that will encourage open-ended imaginative play and remember that you don’t need to buy ‘branded’ items for your kid to have fun.
Again, these can be easily tailored to your child’s interests. You may want to have activities close to home, or that are free, cost fewer reward points and then have costly activities be something they have to save more points to earn. Not all activities have to be away from home either!
- At home: build a tent out of sheets & chairs; make a collage; parent play with cars / dolls / animals / trains for 20 mins without distractions; have a tea party with toys; invite a friend over for the afternoon.
- Free: go to a park; feed ducks; favourite playground; go to a beach; bike ride; art gallery; museum.
- Paid: go to an indoor attraction (like a playground or trampoline park); go to zoo; go to observatory to see stars; movie.
Food can be a controversial choice because it risks weighting food choices to show that some foods are inherently more desirable than others. In saying that, plenty of parents have chosen to use a jellybean or other small treat as a reward.
For more creative options, why not choose food related activities instead. Reward points could be saved towards things like:
- doing baking together,
- helping to make dinner (or choosing from a list of dinner options),
- buying and planting vegetable seedlings, or micro-greens for the windowsill,
- going to a cafe for a fluffy or scone,
- going to a restaurant for lunch / dinner.
Making musical maracas
What you need
- Paper plates (small).
- Felts, crayons, paint, stickers etc.
- Wooden beads, sea shells, bells etc.
- Help your children to decorate the outside of the plates (don’t forget to write their names on!).
- Fold the plate in half (like an empanada) and staple along the edges. Leave a gap at the top.
- Hold it upright with the gap at the top. Help your children to drop beads, bells, shells etc. inside their musical instrument; one big toddler sized handful will be about enough.
- Staple up the gap, put on some music, and shake!
Note: This is a great activity to do on a rainy day or with a playgroup. For younger toddlers choose larger items to put inside and play with under supervision only; i.e. keep choking hazards in mind.
I really love the simplicity of this dish and that it’s a one pot meal when cooked in the wok. Miss 2 even ate a brussel sprout after licking all the gravy off it!
- 40 cloves of garlic (peeled; hard end cut off; cut in half any large cloves)
- 3 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts (cut in half)
- You can use chicken tenderloins or thighs instead.
- Neutral oil (i.e. Rice Bran Oil)
- Salt & Pepper
- 3 cups chicken stock + 1/2 cup in reserve
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1T dried basil
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 2T fine white rice flour
- Optional: 2 chopped rashers of bacon (middle or shoulder)
- Optional: approx. 8 brussel sprouts (chopped in half)
- Optional: Wild Mushroom Powder
Allergies: soy free, gluten free, dairy free, egg free, nut free.
- In a large skillet / frying pan / electric wok, heat the oil.
- Put in the chicken and garlic. Once the chicken is partially cooked, put in the bacon and brussel sprouts to cook as well.
- Cook until the chicken is browned on both sides.
- Add 3 cups of the chicken stock, lemon juice, basil, and oregano. You may want to keep back some of the lemon juice and add after tasting (it can be quite a strong flavour).
- Bring mixture to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Note: If you want to serve with rice noodles, you can rinse the noodles under hot water until you are able to separate them and then cook them in the simmering broth. Not only will this help to reduce the broth but the noodles taste amazing!
- Taste the broth and add salt + pepper to liking. If you’d like slightly more umami flavour, consider adding a dash of one of the following: coconut amino acids, wild mushroom powder, soy sauce, or hoisin sauce.* Food allergies will impact choice.
- In a small bowl or cup, whisk the rice flour and 1/c of reserved chicken stock. Add this slurry to the cooking mixture and cook until the sauce thickens (you may need to increase the heat).
- Serve with rice noodles, rice, or mashed potatoes.
Note: The secret to this recipe is to lightly sear the outside of the garlic cloves – you want them to go soft, sweet, and squishy inside (like when roasted (otherwise the garlic can be a bit overwhelming). In the traditional French recipe the cloves are left intact (skin on) and the dish is cooked in the oven (then you suck out the gooey inner and discard the skin).