Welcome to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! For the next month or so, front porches will be festooned with twinkling lights. Santa Claus will hold court at the local mall. Candles will glow at the table. Carols will resound at the spinet. And families will gather for feasts that will make all the Whos down in Whoville green with envy.
It’s that last one—the family gathering—that has me a little nervous this year. For the past twelve years, Katie and I were living in Florida while the bulk of our siblings were living in Maryland. But this summer, we moved back up North. Now, more than 32 relatives live within a one-hour radius of our home. Some are as close as the next neighborhood over.
Believe me, I love being back home. I’m so glad my brothers and sisters, as well as most of my in-laws, are nearby. They’re all good people, and we get along really well. But it’s been years since we’ve been part of a major family gathering, and a lot has happened in those intervening years. Mainly, we had a lot of kids who just happen to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
If you know anything about autism, you know that people on the spectrum can have a hard time with sensory overload. Noises and crowds can make them shut down or act out. Changes in routine are unsettling. The smells, tastes, and textures of a holiday meal can be overwhelming. Even when they’re surrounded by people they know and love, they’re still surrounded. And that doesn’t always feel good.
All of this got me thinking about how different our family can be—and how different we may appear to people who come to visit. Mind you, most of our relatives are familiar with our dynamic, but there are a few outliers. Not to mention, new friends may end up dropping by. So, with no malice or prejudgment intended, I decided to come up with a few random guidelines for visitors to our home over the holidays.
A Field Guide to the Zanchettin Holiday Home.
- Please remember that the Hallmark Channel is a mendacious purveyor of myth. No one’s dining room looks like that, and certainly not ours. We’re too busy running to therapy sessions and prepping for IEP meetings to dust every other day. Or every other month. Or ever.
- No, the mini-trampoline belongs in the hallway, where we can keep an eye on it. And on its users.
- If you find yourself trapped in a heavily one-sided conversation with one of the kids, remember that nonverbal clues don’t work. Use your words. Find some hook that you can use to change the subject. Unless, of course, you enjoy lengthy discourses about the relative merits of water type Pokémon versus grass types in the Kanto Region.
- Please try not to make any references to Frozen. Not even oblique references. Don’t even say, “Let it go” in casual conversation.
- Yeah, he spins around like that sometimes. Or hops. Or planks. He’ll be fine.
- Don’t be offended if one or more of the kids disappears without notice. It isn’t you; it’s her. She’s probably getting overwhelmed and looking for a quiet place to unwind. Just shrug your shoulders and move on to another child. We’ve got six of them, so there should be plenty to go around.
- Yes, that probably is the 75th time you’ve heard the theme song for the video game “Five Nights at Freddy’s.” It makes him happy, so we’ve learned to block it out.
- Don’t be surprised if, when you ask one of the kids what extracurricular activity he’s involved in, he replies, “Therapy.” He’s being honest.
- Yes, he often sits upside down like that, with his head near the floor and his feet in the air. Or athwart both arms of the chair. Or draped over the back of the sofa. And yes, he’s very comfortable doing it.
- Yes, I know he’s taking a bath right before dinner. That’s his safe place when things get too noisy. He’ll be out in about an hour.
- All compliments about our parenting will be graciously accepted by the management. All advice will be graciously ignored.
- Why yes, I’d love another glass of wine. How did you know?