These days I work with children who have autism or are on the autistic spectrum. Many of the students I work with are non-verbal, meaning they literally do not speak. During the weeks leading up to the holidays, a tremendous number of holiday-themed activities took place at our school; everything from stories to field trips about the holidays, plays and movies, art projects and discussions and even helping out at a food donation center. There were many times when we, as staff, looked at each other and wondered if our kids were connecting with any of it or were simply going through the motions, adhering to a formula for what to do in any given situation, and kind of looking to us to really create the experience we hoped they'd be having themselves.
Astonishing things began to unfold as we approached the winter break. First, we had a holiday party during which families of the students came, visited with the children and with the staff, ate delicious food and mingled. The children were excited, demonstrating real pride as they showed their parents around. For those of our kids who can talk, introductions were plentiful and intense, and for those who couldn't, an inordinate amount of giggling, bubbling over and real joy were evident.
Of course, anxiety was high as well, since many of our kids thrive on routine and breaking for the winter vacation and having a party are anything but routine. There were tantrums and tears, but overall, the buzz and excitement in the air was not only generated by us, but by the children themselves, who, although they can't always communicate with us, are nevertheless very sensitive to feelings and quite capable of bonding during the holiday season.
Children with autism are still children. Walking them through the traditions of family, sharing, gift exchanges and giving back to the community is as important for them as it is for any "typical" child. While you may not see the fruits of your labor instantaneously, realize that even the tiniest bit of feedback from a child like this is a great indicator that something you have said or done has affected them. You can create a world of sharing, caring and good values no matter what the disability of the child, and bringing them into that world is the greatest gift of all.
For some tips about preparing for the holidays with a person with autism please visit the following link: http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=holiday_tips
Aimee Boyle is a special education teacher and lives on the shoreline of CT with her family.