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How can I better manage my autistic child's family visits?

William Stillman
Health Education
Most people with autism possess acute sensory sensitivities. That is, a strong aversion to loud and unpredictable noise, or bright lighting, or food tastes and aromas that can be overwhelming.

Family gatherings are often loud, crowded and unpredictable with lots of overstimulating, overwhelming sensory sensations like laughing, music, TV and video games blaring, or foods that may make one so sensitive feel nauseated. Don’t you feel exhausted after everyone leaves, too?

Instead of perceiving your child’s “tantrums” as “autistic behaviors,” try thinking of his reaction in terms of communication. It’s not that he doesn’t love you or that he’s deliberately being “bratty.” He probably wants to comply and please everyone; but it’s too, too much! Even though he speaks, it doesn’t mean he recognizes his own sensory triggers or has a way to put language to them. All he knows is that he’s feeling increasingly agitated and irritated, and making a scene “works” in that he gains relief and can leave the hurtful environment.

How about well before the next time he’s scheduled to visit, the two of you make an agreement about family gatherings? Tell him you understand and you want to help. Show him a safe, quiet space in your home that will be his alone when he visits. He can go there whenever he needs to. Make available books, drawing materials, computer access, or whatever helps him to become absorbed in something to block out (temporarily) the hub-bub of family.

Reunions and holidays can be stressful for all of us. Remembering to be sensitive to your child’s needs, especially, will aid you in making compassionate accommodations that will poise him for a successful and pleasant visit.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.