Navigating the holidays as a family with special needs

December 21, 2016

The holidays are a hectic and fun time. Most of us push through until a normal routine picks back up in the new year. But there are some families we often overlook—those who struggle with the frequent interruptions of the season because of parenting a child with special needs. Adjusting to change can take a bigger toll on their families. So, I asked Louise Reed, a wife and mom of four, to offer some advice and encouragement to those families who find themselves wondering how to help their children thrive during the hustle and bustle.

Lindsay Swartz: Tell us a little bit about your family and your experience with special needs.

Louise Reed: We have four children, three boys and girl. One of our sons has autism—what many people know as Asperger’s Syndrome. He was diagnosed when he was 11 years old. He’s now 19 years old and lives one-thousand miles away at college. We currently have a 25-year-old son whose job keeps him on the road year-round, a 22-year-old son who just graduated from college and works in the area, a 15-year-old daughter who is a sophomore in high school.

Swartz: What advice would you give parents of children with special needs during the craziness of the holidays?

Reed: The holidays can be stressful to all of us, but especially to those who thrive on routine. Children (and adults) who enjoy structure can struggle when things are out of the ordinary. During the holidays, there are extra events, parties and late nights, and the regular daily routines are disrupted. There also may be guests in your home who may cause things to be different from “normal” for your family.

I would suggest you prepare your family as much as possible for what to expect. Create a holiday calendar of events, and ask each family member if there is anything special they would like to do during the season. You can also make a meal plan. My son, who has Asperger’s,   always wanted to know what was going to be for dinner. By creating a meal plan for the week, he didn’t have to ask; he could check for himself. If there will be gift-giving, talk about what that will look like—will everyone open gifts at once, or will people take turns and watch others open gifts? The more significant the disruption, the more important it is to prepare in advance.

Swartz: What practical things have you done to try to keep a routine, especially for your son with Asperger’s?

Reed: One of the biggest things is trying to stick to a regular bedtime and regular meal-times. Nothing can make us grumpier than being sleepy or hungry! While it’s hard to do when there are parties to attend and guests in the house, it will benefit everyone. It’s also helpful to have certain plans or traditions that are just for your immediate family—things that you can “control” as much as possible and that can provide a dose of familiarity to an otherwise crazy schedule.

Swartz: We often expect the holidays to be merry and full of cheer, but that’s not always the case. How have you found it most helpful to manage holiday expectations?

Reed: The best way to manage expectations is to first find out what the expectations are. Once you know there is an expectation something will happen, then you can do your best to make it happen or talk about why it may or may not happen. We all experience disappointment. It isn’t our job as parents to make sure our kids are never disappointed, but it is our job to help them learn to handle it in a healthy way. And, for kids with autism or other special needs, sometimes we have to anticipate what those disappointments are going to be in order to help them deal with them in the best way possible.

Once you have prepared for changes and made plans, it’s also very important to stick to those plans as much as possible. “Rules” and plans are expected to be followed, and changes to those plans can cause significant anxiety. If the plans must change (which we know they often do), take a deep breath and give as much notice as possible, explaining that you know it’s a change in plans. Try to let them be a part of the decision as much as possible.

Swartz: If a child with special needs does have a difficult time, how would you advise parents to respond?

Reed: If you sense that your child is headed toward a meltdown or is becoming overwhelmed, take him or her away from the setting for a little while to allow time to decompress, if at all possible. We found that the heat of the moment was not usually the best time (what I really want to say here is “never”) to try to talk about it or reason things out. Our son needed time to cool down and think things over for himself. When he had done that, he was in a much better frame of mind to discuss the situation and how he might behave better next time.

Swartz: How do you attend to your other children throughout the holidays so that they don't feel overshadowed or left out?

Reed: I mentioned the calendar before. Let everyone be a part of event planning if they are old enough to pick something they want to do together. Take time to cuddle and talk, eat meals together, stop and listen to what they have to tell you. Slow down. Enjoy the holiday season and let your family enjoy each other. If it means you don’t do so much, then let it be so. Help everyone in the family understand that you are a team. And, know that sometimes you will fail, and that’s OK. God is big enough to comfort you and all of your children through the struggles.

Swartz: What are some of the unique joys and things the Lord has taught you through raising a child on the autism spectrum?

Reed: We have learned that each of our children is a unique blessing from God, created and gifted by the Creator. Our autistic son has taught us that sometimes we try to move too fast; we should slow down and enjoy life and family. He has also taught us that people are not always what they appear to be. Whether struggling with a hidden disability or maybe just having a really bad day, we are all much more complex than we look on the outside. All of us are truly created in God’s image, and everyone we meet deserves to be treated with respect as his image-bearer.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24