Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dealing with Autism and Allergies at the Holidays: Some Questions Answered

My Christmas tree.
So, I decided this was as good a time as any to answer some e-mail questions that I've gotten the past little bit here that are holiday themed.  I hope the answers are of help to some people out there and if not, I hope they at least help Katrina and Rick (who to both of you I apologize for not getting to these sooner, but I've been sick with one of the various winter plagues that goes around).

One of the big questions I got e-mailed last week was from Katrina about allergies and the holidays.   It was a pretty loaded question, at least to me, so here it goes.

"How do you think I should deal with allergies at holiday parties?  I have a nephew who was diagnosed with severe (as in life threatening) corn and tree nut allergies earlier this year and I'm not sure what to make for him to eat at a holiday party I'm throwing in a couple of weeks.  Do you have any advice on recipes to make?
Okay, Katrina?  I'm going to take this question and punt.  Seriously.  But, with good reason, so just stick with me here.  My answer to this question would be this.  Do NOT make your nephew anything. 

Why?  Here's the good reason part of the punt.  If your nephew has life threatening allergies any ingestion of corn or tree nut could end up with him in the hospital, or at least suddenly being unable to breathe and you panicking as his mom or dad hurriedly sticks an epi-pen into his thigh.  That doesn't exactly shout "good times" does it?

Even if you are super careful with what you make and buy flours and things that might be okay for your nephew to consume, my biggest concern is with cross contamination.  If no one in your family is allergic to corn or tree nuts and you're not used to those things being out of your cooking regime, there very well could be residual corn or tree nut particles floating around your kitchen space or hiding in your mixer...things like that.  And those particles, while not a big deal to you and yours, to him could be a very bad thing.  And the worst part with a corn allergy is that corn hides in ingredient lists a LOT and cross contaminates things in factories a LOT and it doesn't need to be declared like tree nuts do on packing labels.  So, that allergy alone could get dicey.

My advice would be to ask his parents to bring him some treats to the party and tell them the type of things you're going to be making for the other kids.  Trust me, as a parent of allergic kids, I'd ALWAYS prefer people to ask me to bring my own food for the kids.  Why?  Because I know it's safe if I bring it, while if someone else makes it or serves it, I can't be sure how much they know or how careful they need to be.  Oh the tales I could wow you with as I dove across the kitchen to stop my father-in-law from trying to feed my son beef jerky or the time he thought it was okay to try and feed him M&M's (speaking of life threatening allergies that gave me a couple of grey hairs).  Trust me, your nephew's parents will be relieved if you ask them to bring food as it shows you care and that you also want your nephew to have a good time and be safe in your home.

The second question comes to us from Rick.

"My girlfriend has a toddler son with autism who sticks everything in his mouth.  So one question is do you have any advice on what ornaments I should stick on the tree this year to make him safe.  And we're going to be having a large amount of my family at Christmas this year and I plan on introducing them to my girlfriend and her son.  Do you have any advice on how to deal with the gathering.  My girlfriend just tells me not to worry about it and that 'we'll deal with it', but I don't want to just 'deal with it'.  I want her and Andrew to have fun and for all of us to do it with as little stress as possible.
Well, Rick, for one thing you're seriously cool for being concerned enough about these things to ask questions.  A lot of people don't have those types of insights and then get freaked out by things later.  Your girlfriend is very lucky to have you.  And don't worry about her saying the, "we'll deal with it" line.  She's not blowing your concerns off, I'm sure.  When you have a special needs child, trust me on this, you quickly get used to just "dealing with it" because 99.9% of people don't really ask the questions you just did beforehand and the parents just get used to winging it once they get somewhere.

Now, onto your questions.  For one thing, please do not take me as an autism expert.  I'm just a mom whose son is autistic, so don't take this as gospel or anything like that.  This is just some advice from me and my experiences on how Alvah reacts to things and how to deal with a child who sticks every single thing (except most food items *grumble*) into his mouth.

With the tree, my biggest hurdles I had to overcome with ours were the lights, and then of course, the types of ornaments I put on the tree.  I originally had multi-colored glass lights that I'd had for years, but when my son started sticking those in his mouth I was not only freaking out at the prospect of him chewing down and getting broken glass in his mouth, but there was the concern of electric shock and if nothing else getting burned by the heat.  So, I went out and bought LED lights for our tree as they are plastic and are cool to the touch.  When I put the lights up on the tree I wrap the lights around the branches on every two or three branches (now...when he was younger I'd wrap them around every branch the lights touched) to make them harder to pull off the tree, harder to get a mouth hold on, and give me a good early warning if he decided to try and pull the lights off (the whole tree would shake instead of a stand of lights flopping down).  It helped a lot to dissuade him from chewing on the lights.  Also, be sure to wipe down any new lights with a wet paper towel to remove the powdery residue that comes on the light cords.  I found out when pregnant that the lights can be coated in lead to help stop sticking.  Not something you want around a kid that sticks things in their mouth.  Overly paranoid?  Maybe.  But, I still felt better after doing it.

Avoid garland and tinsel on the tree.  My son ate both of those and it worried me to no end when I had to deal with that.  Instead go and get a good length of gold corded rope (you can find it in with the upholstery stuff at Jo-Ann fabrics or Wal-Mart.  I included a close up pic of the stuff I used above).  I got mine for 1.00 and some odd change a yard.  My six foot tree took 10 yards of rope to decorate (my advice is go a lot longer than you think you need and if you have extra you can either just cut it off or wrap it around the tree more), but now I have a nice compliment to the tree, don't have to worry about my son pulling it apart and he's never once shown an interest in eating on it.

And it goes year after year without needing to be replaced, so triple bonus.

The worst mistake I made was going and buying plastic "non breakable" ornaments for my tree, figuring that they were a good way to replace the ornaments I quickly figured out were not safe to keep on the tree.  Non-breakable my left foot.  My son is still chewing on those (my daughter loves to play with them, so while I SHOULD have just throw them out all at once, I've been doing it gradually for her sake) and makes a mess with the sheer amount of glitter that gets chewed off of the ornaments and I end up with sharp little bits of plastic getting onto everything as he chews up and spits out the ornaments (that he manages to chew on when I'm not looking somehow).  I have been throwing the ornaments out as he chews any type of hole in them and they won't be getting replaced with more plastic, that's for sure.  Also, avoid ANY ornaments with the stick in tops that most ball style ornaments come with.  The first time you see one of those ends sticking out of a toddler's mouth is the moment you know a good amount of healthy fear thinking of the choking hazard involved.

My advice, unless you know how to sew or are into sewing, would be to go and get some good old fashioned stuffed ornaments if you can find them.  If you can't, go and pick up some small stuffed holiday themed animals (those gift card holder animals work well for this) and then thread a needle with some embroidery floss in the color of your choice and make a corded loop by sticking the needle through the very top of the animals head and voila!  Instant ornament.  I actually made a lot of stuffed ornaments in basic shapes (trees, stars, bells, etc) by using fat quarters (quilting blocks that you can buy at Jo-Anns and places like Wal-Mart in their fabric section) and a good old pen before sewing them and stuffing them, but it all depends on how good with a sewing machine you are and how much time you want to put into the project.  You can also stick different stuffed animals directly into the tree for ornaments too if you don't want to deal with the strings.  I have some multi-colored frogs that I love to use that way when I need to pad out holes in our tree (I collect frogs). 

Also, and this is important, be sure to anchor the tree to the wall.  I know that it looks funky to have it tied up to the wall, but you never know when ANY toddler, special needs or otherwise, might try and climb a tree or try and get an ornament that is out of reach and try to knock a tree over on themselves and those things can hurt.  So, it's best to just be careful. 

As for the gathering best advice on how to deal with that is this.  If your girlfriend decides she needs to leave early?  Don't get mad at her.  Trust me, since my son has been born we've never made it more than an hour at a family get together before we have to leave as my son goes into "over stimulation" meltdown.  Mind you my husband has a huge family, but I've found that the "we'll have to leave early" rule pretty much applies to any gathering with strangers, so just be prepared for that.  I like to explain it to others that putting a child with autism in a large crowd of people is like hooking yourself up to an amplifier attached to a jet engine.  How long would you last before you freaked out?  You might want to prepare your family for the gathering by explaining it that way too.
And, I'm sure I don't need to tell you this one since you asked very pertinent questions, but please warn people not to start giving advice on how to "fix" your girlfriend's special little guy.  That will not enamor your family to your girlfriend at all and will, trust me on this, make the whole "leaving early" thing happen a little bit sooner rather than later.

And good luck!  I hope the gatherings go well for both of you!  And I hope that something I've said today might help you out :).  Happy Holidays!

No comments: