A Successful Holiday Strategy for an Autism Family

6 min read

“What’s wrong with him? Why is he crying so much? What’s wrong with Nat?” Every family member was pelting me with these questions at a family holiday gathering. All because my then-2-year-old son Nat stood crying, holding the front doorknob at my aunt’s house, for the entire holiday dinner. He would not leave the front door. And, after that, everywhere we took Nat, he did the same thing. My husband and I found ourselves facing upcoming holiday seasons with dread. Chanukah and Christmas were coming up fast, and we had very few tools or ideas at our disposal.

Social Stories

This was in 1992. We had no idea that Nat had autism and we had no idea what to do for him. But just three years before, in 1989, a brilliant educator named Carol Gray had created a wonderful pedagogical tool for children with special needs, called the social story. Gray’s website describes the social story as a learning tool that “follow[s] a defined process that begins with gathering information, discovering a topic that ‘fits’ the Audience, and the development of personalized text and illustration.” The little stories can be individualized for any child, giving him a context and a set of rules, a routine, he can follow.

But Nat was not in school at the time, and there was no internet, so we were on our own. So when the next holiday was coming up, I panicked about what would happen. I remember grumbling to my husband: “There are no kids’ books that actually tell the child what his own celebration will be like.”

To which my husband sagely replied, “Why don’t you make one yourself?”

And, for my little family, what followed was game-changing: The Nat Book.

Nat Books, like social stories, are easy and fun to create. I enjoyed making them into little cardboard booklets, with consistent cover designs. They’re all just scotch tape and paper, family photos and magazine pictures. But they were magical because they gave Nat a storybook to hold in his own hands. Best of all, it was about him.

In the years to come, as recently as 2016, we used Nat Books to help Nat cope with new situations, from moving into a group home, to going to a new camp for autistic adults, to voting.

Following is a step-by-step description of how to make your own loved one’s storybook for whatever they might be struggling with. Carol Gray’s Social Stories are of course the quintessential source, and will give you the structure and research behind this concept. My own storybooks were much improved over the years by my growing understanding of Gray’s work. Still, you may find my method easy and fun. Get creative!

  • Gather your materials. You’ll need about 10 pieces of paper, and any word processing software. Use scotch tape, scissors, pen, magazines to cut from, and photos. The main idea is that you will be constructing the scenes you will need for your story—faking scenes—using people from one photo and another, combined with photos from any helpful related websites, (as needed) all assembled together.
  • Write out your narrative. The entire story is about 10 pages long. There should be only two to three lines per page, so you’ll have to extract only the most necessary words. Start with a small, simple definition of what the event is, but keep it in your child’s terms. Think about what the child will see, feel, and experience that day. For example, you can state simply that Christmas, Chanukah, or any holiday dinner is eaten with such-and-such people; you don’t have to get into the religious aspects or even Santa Claus, because you are merely trying to get your child successfully through the social event itself.
  • Keep your child’s needs and abilities in mind as you write. What is important next? What will your kid see? What might they be feeling? Think moment by moment. A crowd of people at the door. Sitting at a huge table. Uncomfortable chairs. Grandma’s dog. Tell them what they can do to feel comforted (toys and Mommy and Daddy—whatever helps them). Be sure to write that they will then feel better; it may be propaganda, but it is for a good cause! In our case, Nat would look at the pictures of him at Grandma’s house, smiling (he didn’t know that the picture was cut and pasted in from his birthday party last year!) and he will believe it. Think like your child. Get down to his level. See what he will be seeing. Feel what he will be feeling.
  • Write about each consecutive aspect that is essential to the event—as briefly as possible. The dinner. The dessert. Your expectations each time: “Jack will sit quietly at the table while he is eating. After he eats, he can run around in the playroom only.” (Picture of Jack running in a room.) Each concept should be a separate illustrated page in the book.
  • Be clear about your expectations of your child. We expected Nat to sit fairly quietly and calmly and to eat some of the food. He was not to scream or run around the table. Preferably, you will have pasted up a fake picture of your kid sitting cooperatively at a holiday table.
  • Describe how the event will end and what the reward will be for getting through it. “After the dinner is over, Sarah will eat ice cream and then go home.” We pasted in photos of Nat in his car seat and then Nat in bed.
  • End on a positive note. Conclude that your holiday was pleasant. Our books always ended with Nat telling his bunny toy that he had had a good time at whatever the event was (more positive propaganda!).

Read the story as many times as he will allow. You may find, as I did, that your child will repeat the phrases to themself during the event and that this will have a calming effect on them. It is a bit of work, doing all that cutting and taping, but you might find it fun, too. And you will have a lovely, helpful book that your child will like because it is all about him!

Our Own Happy Ending

The next few holidays were a smash hit for Nat. He walked right into my aunt’s house after the very first Nat Book, smiling and quoting lines from his book; we learned at that time that Nat had a fantastic memorizing ability and were extra proud of this. If I had my own Susan Book, it would end with: “And so, Susan will relax during Christmas dinner because Nat will be happy there.” Isn’t it true what they say—that a mother is as happy as her least happy child? Anyway, the final page would show me eating pie with a smile on my face—of course.

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