Co-written by Diane Isaacs
My business partner and co-author, Diane Isaacs and I were recently talking about the “busyness” of the holiday season. We wondered why when we casually tell friends and colleagues to have a “happy holiday,” we can receive a look of suspicion or a roll of the eyes implying that the words “happy” and “holidays” may not mix. Holiday joy is considered an oxymoron by many — the Norman Rockwell ideal family holiday exists only in watercolor. Holidays can be associated with unresolved family issues, anxiety about presents, stressful schedules, unfulfilled expectations that lock up “true happiness” deep in one’s emotional cellar, not readily available during holiday fare.
Call us naïve, but we maintain the fact that joy can happen at any given time and especially during holidays. We just released a book titled Seven Keys to Unlock Autism. The same seven keys that I developed to prepare my staff to work joyfully with children with autism provide a skill set for everyone to uncover, discover and recover happiness. By using these keys, you can deck the halls this holiday season with joy in all environments.
Key One: Set an intention. Ask yourself how you want to show up during this time with your family and friends.
Every action, thought and result starts with this seemingly-simple choice. You are the constant in every interaction. Everything you see is through this lens, whether you are aware of it or not. Imagine what is possible if you approach each moment from a place of curiosity, wonder and acceptance instead of defaulting to judgment, disagreement or impatience. It may open up the space for meaningful conversations and loving family time. Take a moment to be still and calibrate your internal intention, like setting your emotional compass through all the upcoming encounters, parties and conversations that come up over the holidays. If you get thrown off course by something someone does or doesn’t do (and it will happen), simply check in and return to your intention. An airplane on auto-pilot is rarely on perfect course — it veers off its mark and makes continuous adjustments to arrive at its true course.
Key Two: Acceptance
Acceptance can be a word that mistakenly can may be viewed as a compromise or chore. “Alright, I’ll accept this, if you agree to that.” Acceptance is not a negotiation but rather a release from any pre-set thought patterns that shape our perceptions of ourselves. It starts with accepting yourself. The saying “You can’t truly love someone else until you love yourself” is the axiom of this key. Take inventory of the way you judge yourself. Listen to the committee in your head that says you are not this or that, you don’t have this or that, you need to be this before you can be happy…
Now find the loving voice inside of you that tells you the truth. You are perfect just the way you are. It may confuse the loudest voices in your head that have dominated the conversation internally. This holiday season, give yourself the gift of completely accepting yourself, with no criteria, and notice how accepting you will automatically be of others… This is a key to true holiday harmony.
Key Three: Understand your senses
Holidays can be a sensory violation on all levels. Stores are brighter, louder, filled with many foods, smells and sensations. The pressure to shop, organize, socialize and participate in the holiday protocol can be extremely overwhelming. The third key is to understand your sensory profile and be aware of others sensory experiences. Just as people with autism usually have challenges with sensory regulation, each and every individual is constantly organizing the sensory input from the environment, whether or not we are conscious of the process. This holiday season, monitor if anxiety or stress are creeping into the moment. Notice what is triggering your sensory overload — are the blinking lights giving you a headache, are there too many smells and tastes in front of you? Take a few minutes of quite time for yourself before you entertain your guests. After the party is over, try taking a warm bath to help relax and regulate your own neurological system. Remember that holiday time is an opportunity to reflect and acknowledge all your blessings — not race to find the best deal, buy the right gift, eat the sweetest treats or create the perfect decoration. Be the true essence of the holiday with a calm sense of balance without all the sensory distractions and busy-ness.
Key Four: Follow the leader
Oftentimes, we arrive in a family situation with a vision of what we’d like to happen: a civilized conversation at dinner, a smooth family outing, the perfect gift exchange. Like trying to control the weather, our preconceived ideas of how things should go can lead to disappointment and frustration when they don’t. Key four invites you to put down the director barker and be authentically interested in others. Think about how you feel when you hold a new baby — you get hopelessly lost in the baby’s smile, gurgle and expressions — it is hard to not be totally captivated in the moment. Take the time to sit with your niece and listen to her ideas. Resist the urge to redirect her to something you want to do. Listen to your uncle as he shares a story, without trying to add to it or top it with a better story. Working with children with autism has provided a fascinating porthole through which to see the world as they uniquely experience it. This holiday season, let yourself put down your tunnel vision, and be curious about others. When you let yourself follow the lead of another, you will be transported into another dimension — one of exploration and surprises. By being open to discovering the world through another’s interests and point of view, unexpected, intangible gifts will flow your way.
Key Five: Foster inclusion.
As you sit around the big family table, or stand in the neighborhood party, there is a social pretense that everyone is included. Just because the physical bodies are present doesn’t mean there is authentic inclusion. Some of the loneliest moments for an individual can occur in a crowded room with no one to connect with. Seek out the loner in the group. Sit next to the quiet person. Reach out with kind words to the person meandering about. Invite the shy child at the table to offer her opinion. Create an environment of including everyone by listening, inquiring, connecting and welcoming. This is the true spirit of giving.
Key Six : Practice makes progress
The first five keys sound like good theory on paper, but the first thing your bragging uncle says may throw it all out the window. As you know, there are no on/off switches in life, but a blending of on and off. The sixth key says that practice makes progress. Practice is everything and requires constant vigilance and times at bat. Left to our unconscious devices, we naturally slip back into deeply worn patterns of relationships, so know that you are a dynamic work in progress. Instead of defeating yourself for remarking the same way you have for years, notice it and practice another way next time. Acknowledge the little things you do to break free of familiar dialogue and create anew. Clear away the laundry list of fixed ideas about your mother and practice a new conversation with her. When you practice a different approach, it is another gift to offer yourself and your loved ones over this holiday period… and well beyond.
Key Seven: Celebrate!
This brings us to the moment you’ve been waiting for — the seventh key of celebrating joy. Employing all six keys, your internal tumbler will align and the vault to happiness can open. It is really that simple. All along, the locks have not been outside of you in your friends, colleagues and family, but within you. Take time to celebrate how you set an intention, create acceptance of yourself, acknowledge and experience the world through your senses, listen and explore the experiences through others, enroll everyone in the moment and practice opening up to an amazing holiday time. We may set goals and resolutions each year, but rarely to we take stock of how all the gifts we have in our lives. Take a moment to reflect on the year’s accomplishments, on the positive experiences you have shared with others. Celebrate your family members, work colleagues, neighbors and friends. Exponential moments of joy will present themselves far greater than any fancy present or decadent dessert. Joy to the world starts with unlocking the joy within!
Elaine Hall and Diane Isaacs
We just released “Seven Keys to Unlock Autism” by Elaine Hall and Diane Isaacs (Wiley), which offers educators, caregivers and parents actionable techniques to teach children on the autism spectrum and foster creative and positive relationships.