For the last 10 years, Jann Tobias’s family has celebrated New Year’s Eve with a family dinner. With careful attention to detail, she uses her aunt’s tablecloth and her grandmother’s china, making a beautiful presentation of her family’s favorite foods. Jann’s husband, Bob, carves the roast beef with his father’s knife. Over dinner, they tell stories about the relatives whose recipes comprise the meal. Dinner is followed by the year’s home movies that her daughters had hurriedly helped their father splice together earlier that day. The night’s festivities conclude with Jann’s son, who has autism, conducting an appropriately embarrassing and humorous “Ode To The Last Year” sing-along that the family makes up.
Learning about Jann’s family rituals, I was struck by how the celebration featured the best of each member of her family. When I shared this with Jann, she laughed but remarked that those crazy customs are the true glue of her family.
For families with a child on the autism spectrum, traditions and family rituals are frequently dropped because of the uncertainty of their child’s behavior. Many families have told me that they would rather play it safe than risk the disruption.
However, developing and finessing family rituals can be a wonderful way to recognize transitions and milestones – the birth of a child, transition between schools, and other events – while providing a sense of security during times of change and uncertainty.
Through stability, familiarity, and repetition – techniques professionals use to engage children on the spectrum – these rituals become safe and predictable. Whether a graduation ceremony or the hushed recital of a funeral mass, rituals can ease celebratory or challenging transitions.
While rituals and family traditions can have significant positive impact on the health and well-being of families of children with autism and other developmental disabilities, the key is to adapt them to your family’s needs and be flexible, without losing the meaning.
In Jann’s family, flexibility is crucial in integrating important traditions as a positive and meaningful part of her family’s life. “Our son would sometimes get over- stimulated at the table and break some dishes,” she said. “We decided that if family heirlooms got broken, we’d just glue them back together and put them out again next year.”
Family rituals can be times to not only celebrate as an entire family, but also to pause as a couple and recognize each other’s accomplishements, large and small. They can also be traditions to pass down to children and future generations.
When a couple marries they are joined in union, and their families come together as well. For the couple, the task at hand is finding a satisfactory balance between maintaining their own identity and negotiating a communal lifestyle (Rubinstein, 1971). Previous generations exert strong influences on a newlywed couple, influences which must be negotiated into their identity. The couple must choose which family rituals to maintain, modify, or integrate, and which rituals to discard.
Karen recalls struggling early in her marriage to get her husband on board with her family’s traditions. “We all loved listening to music together and it seemed like all that my husband and his family wanted to do was watch baseball,” she said.
It took years, but eventually she was able to let go of the resentment and embrace her husband’s love of baseball – while introducing him to her love of music. Now, both baseball and music have enriched the family fabric.
Years later, Karen realized that this is probably what her mother did to gain her father’s acceptance of these activities. Embracing her husband’s love of baseball, which her son gravitated toward, made it easier for her to reciprocate and share with her husband the world of music.
So, too, can families with children on the autism spectrum cherish the rituals that are passed down from their families and modify them in meaningful ways. And if their child is unable to pariticpate – due to behavioral or health challenges – new rituals can be developed to fortify the family life.
Ask yourself, “What’s important to how I define my family? What have I lost and how can I restore it? What’s missing from his family traditions?”
Ivy and Craig’s decision to have a bar mitzvah for their son Sam, who is on the spectrum, was made with heartfelt conviction and equal uncertainty. The traditional Jewish ceremony marks the coming of age as a 13-year-old boy enters adulthood. After speaking to their Rabbi, the couple found a teacher willing to work with Sam and modify the service. Sam loves music, so they used song to help him learn his Torah passages.
Sam’s parents had their doubts. How would their son, who has significant behavioral and language challenges, get through the ceremony? But Sam also loves parties, so Ivy kept reinforcing that there would be a big celebration with music afterward with family and friends. Ivy thought this encouraged Sam to practice with her.
Ivy and Craig prepared themselves for the possibility that Sam could wake up in a bad way on his special day, and not be able to go through with the ceremony.
Sam was surrounded by his family and a few close friends at his temple for his bar mitzvah. By limiting distractions, his family thought Sam would feel less pressure in case he was having a difficult day. Ivy was thrilled that Sam was able to chant his passages from the Torah. As the service concluded, the Rabbi asked Sam if he was proud of himself. Sam, who does not usually answer questions directly, responded with a gleeful, “Yes!” – A moment that no one in the family will ever forget.
This truly was a cause for celebration. A big party followed attended by family, many friends and members of the community. There was food, music, and dancing and Sam had a great time. Ivy, Craig and all of their guests were so proud of Sam. It was deeply moving for them, and they were delighted that they were able to share such an important family ritual with their community.
Transitions in the family life cycle punctuate the end of certain developmental tasks and the beginning of new ones, and provide a safe passage from one life cycle stage to another. Van Gennep (1960) was the first to clearly indicate the function of transition rituals. He coined the term “rites of passage,” and believed that all transition rituals have the same structure: a departure from one area, a crossing of boundaries, and an entry into another area.
Some parents with children on the spectrum are inclined to give up traditions because they feel they will have no meaning to their child. I believe these transition rituals offer structure and stability that serve as road maps during chaotic and uncertain times.
Jennifer’s children would always go out to dinner the night before starting sleep away camp. “They always got to choose whatever they wanted for dinner,” she recalled. “It was just how we did it.”
That’s what makes family rituals so important. They develop meaning over time. “It’s a time for all of us to just be with each other during the chaos of preparing to leave for camp,” Jennifer said. “It seems to lower our anxiety about leaving. We did this before and we are going to do this again, and we get to have a fun farewell even if we are anxious.”
When these family activities are celebrated and looked forward to, they begin taking on special significance and become family lore. Once they take on meaning, that’s when they become a cherished family ritual.
Ritual Strengthening to Help Rebuild Important Family Rituals That Eroded over Time
- What family activities from your childhood years had meaning to you?
- What did they say about your family?
- What keeps you from making them part of your family today?
- Be flexible and modify your ritual to make it meaningful to your family.
- Decide when and where the ritual will be performed. The timing and location are up to you.
- Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day – don’t expect immediate change.
Ritual Rebuilding to Help a Family Recapture Its Identity Based on Family Traditions
- Can the ritual’s impact be enhanced by inviting others to participate?
- Can the ritual be repeated, or does it need to be modified and made more fun for your family now?
- What activities can you engage in with your family, so you can share the joy they experience?
Dr. Richard Cohen, Ph.D. is Chief of Mental Health Services at YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities’ Center for Specialty Therapy. For more information about services available through the YAI Network, visit www.yai.org or call 1-866-2-YAI-LINK.