In South Africa, as December approaches, we wind down for our year-end; a great summer holiday break, Christmas and year-end celebrations, and the end of the school year. As all of this pressure lifts, we sigh a sigh of relief, we relax. It is our hiatus from work, mom’s taxi, extra-murals, diary engagements, and school homework. It is our children’s time to be slovenly, have fun, celebrate unstructured days, no school pressure and extra-murals. We all reflect on the past year and recuperate our energies for the upcoming year. As we focus in the here-and-now of the holiday period, in the back of our minds we are preparing for a new year; what needs to change and what we need to do the same or differently. We are excited about what the new year brings and the new opportunities that are knocking.
However for the child with autism this is not always the case. My son approaches the year-end with anxiety, moodiness, stress, weepiness, clinginess and a huge amount of trepidation. The anticipation of change rocks his world. The long extended holiday breaks represent unstructured days and hours that need to be filled; this is nerve-wracking for him. Saying goodbye to all that is familiar and those he has learnt to trust over the last year is a weary experience for him. Even harder is thinking about all the “newness” to come at the beginning of a new year; a new teacher, new children, a new classroom, a new routine, a new set of rules, new extra-murals and a new aid. It is all so overwhelming. Naturally his anxiety levels, moodiness, weepiness and all emotions feel manic to him and us.
As a parent of a child with autism, I am in a state of constant conflict at this time. I am so excited about my holiday, not being in the car for hours, having my life as unstructured as possible. I do know that in order to preserve my sanity, my son’s sanity comes first. I will have to curtail my holiday whimsies and lead the most unstructured, structured days I can. I also know I am going to have to toughen up and be a bit of an emotional punching bag for my son at this time. I will have to keep him happy 24/7. I do not have school to help keep his day full and structured. I will have more responsibility than usual. This can be tough and rather exhausting. So in truth my son and I face our year-end holiday with a lot of trepidation.
It is not the holiday I had become accustomed to. It is not the holiday I envisaged for my family. Yet it is a holiday. It is a change from what is normal and usual. It is a time to be together, it is a time to be with my husband and children. As with all of life’s challenges it will also be a time of ups and downs. It may not be totally relaxing or recuperating, but we are still afforded the time to reflect and dream about a new year.
Even though the holidays are very hard for my son and a time of high anxiety for him, I do think he appreciates the extended attention and closeness with his parents – the focus shift and energy shift.
As always with every experience for him, there is an important growth opportunity. Life always throws us unexpected events. In a semi-controlled way, with nature’s natural progression of time as a teacher, we can help him achieve new skills. We can teach him things – that life cannot always be consistent and things do change. Some people deal with change easier than others, but the lesson is in how to deal with change and how to grow out of change.
As the New Year comes along and with it all the uncertainty of newness, I have previously noticed that his internal clock is ready to go back. He has had enough and with certain eagerness faces his unknown. We are always there to help him through this and find ways to deal with his anxiety. We hope and pray with every change that he will succeed through it and grow.
We however cannot deny the pressure that we all feel at these times. I have always believed that it is through fear of something new and discomfort that we grow. I am not yet sure how to convey this principle to my son and it is a principle he may never come to live his life by, but it is just one of the many areas where autism affects him and our family daily.