A Very Special Winter Break

Two weeks of unstructured free time can be an autistic kid's worst nightmare. Not to mention their parents'.

Although the weather doesn’t seem to indicate it, we are smack in the middle of the winter school break. School children everywhere get two to three weeks off to…I don’t know, what are they doing? Playing with their Christmas toys? Nah, that was over about five minutes after they opened them.

They sure aren’t tobogganing or building snowmen, at least not in this part of the country. I guess the only certainty is that they are all enjoying not being in school.

But not so much for most children with autism. See, autistic kids love nothing more than their routine, and winter break leaves them all kinds of out­-of-sorts. Two weeks of unstructured time off without the benefit of their usual, predictable schedules can be their worst nightmare…as well as their parents’.

I start thinking about winter break around Thanksgiving. I’ll flip through the newspaper for ideas or pick up that rag, Chicago Parent, with their calendar section full of activities that I could never take my daughter to in a million years. I know there’s a special needs section, but it’s mostly filled with parent support groups and the same lone sensory night at Pump It Up.

As I peruse the other activities I have to assess them with analytical precision as relates to my daughter’s issues. How crowded will it be? What kind of sensory stimulation will be involved? Does it involve her sitting nicely and listening to a park ranger, librarian, or period re-enactor dressed as a 19th-century taper weaver?

Activities that initially seem to be perfect often do not survive further scrutiny, as I get that sitcom bubble over my head imagining how the scene would play out. For example, the author of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie was doing a reading at Nordstrom, and the mouse (or I suspect someone dressed in a giant mouse costume) was going to be appearing with her. Awesome! My daughter loves that book! Except...

She hates read-aloud story times because she insists on having full control of books, especially favorite ones. And the other kids would get on her nerves and their noises would take away what thin thread of focus she had. And the department store setting means that she would find her way post-haste to her favorite obsessions, namely elevators and escalators, and wouldn’t know that a storytelling was going on if the giant rat bit her on the behind. 

We wisely skipped that one, but I don’t always bat a thousand with my choices. One year, my husband and I took her to Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier, which, in case you haven’t been, is pretty much an indoor carnival and exactly as horrifying as that sounds. There are kiddie rides, huge blow-up slides and jumpy houses, and an ice-skating rink. My daughter wanted nothing to do with any of the above, and her mood was not at all improved by the crushing throngs of kids and bone-crunchingly loud Nickelback music that blared overhead, presumably for the benefit of the teenybopper skaters.

The only thing that I knew she would be interested in was the merry-go-round, but it was out of commission for the first half hour we were there. She flapped her arms at some snowflake-shaped lights that were projected onto the floor until the merry-go-round was up and running, but by then her mood was locked in for the day. We left after 45 minutes, paid our $25 parking fee, and my husband and I fought all the way home. 

Don’t ask me why I thought that my daughter would be entertained by the “Christmas Trees from Around the World” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. As if she’d really appreciate the relative merits of a Christmas tree from Guatemala versus one from Slovenia. She paced around in circles and kept getting in the way of the families who were trying to take pictures in front of Christmas trees from the country of their heritage, as I pondered the likelihood of people from Poland decorating their trees with a bunch of miniature reproductions of the Polish flag.

She eventually retreated to the escalators where a security guard intervened to let us know that she was impeding the flow of traffic. So we left, paid our $18 parking fee, and my husband and I fought all the way home. 

So what have we learned? That as much as I know my kid’s likes, dislikes and random sensitivities inside and out I’m still lured in by activities that sound fun for me or the typical child that I keep forgetting that I don’t have? Maybe. Or maybe just that if I’m going to occasionally screw up I should at least make sure the parking is free.

Suzi Macaluso Hughes December 27, 2011 at 10:39 PM
Absolutely hilarious, and 100% dead on. My husband and I laughed out loud at the part about the Christmas Tree exhibit at the MSI. I just suggested this one last week - luckily he was smart enough to steer me away!
Lynn Hudoba December 27, 2011 at 11:39 PM
Your husband is a genius Suzi. Will I never learn?
Susan Carroll December 27, 2011 at 11:41 PM
The zoo is free this week. She might not like it, but at least it's free.
Lynn Hudoba December 28, 2011 at 12:17 AM
Do you still have to pay for parking?
Lisa Kelly December 28, 2011 at 12:51 AM
That is "spot on", i have the same issues with my daughter! Very stressful time of year for all of us "special needs/warrior parents" out there. That is exactly why i opened a safe quite place for our "children with autism" to play. I had enough of all the drama after 8 years! Love your humor!
Lynn Hudoba December 28, 2011 at 01:15 AM
Thanks Lisa! I still have to come check out Kaitlin's hideout...you rock for taking the bull by the horns!
Robert Bykowski December 29, 2011 at 04:33 AM
Lynn, I assume Susan was talking about the Brookfield Zoo, and if so, you can usually avoid paying to park by parking a couple blocks away on a residential side-street somewhere, if you're so inclined.
Jen December 29, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Great post! I TOTALLY get the whole "stick to a routine" thing. There's only so much I can take of watching my son spin puzzles, jump on my bed, and watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse!
Jo Ann McGarry December 31, 2011 at 10:12 PM
My girls may not have the same issues as an autistic child, when selecting activities for winter break, I face similar concerns about what to do with my kids for two plus weeks! The mall, movies, out to eat. Not bad for a weekend, but 14 days to fill can be very costly and calorie-laden! Couldn't the schools have started up again on the 3rd and stockpiled days in case of a snowstorm or let the kids out of school a little earlier? At least when the kids are back into their routines on the 9th, I will look forward to getting back into mine, mundane as they may be.
Karen Asplund Velez January 03, 2012 at 02:13 AM
(I always get confused when I try to comment here) I'm opening a parking garage near where you live... ;) You are just too funny. And you are not alone.


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