Strategies for Navigating the Holidays with a Special Needs ChildDecember 18, 2019
The holidays are a magical time of year for children, with plans for family get-togethers, gift shopping and gift anticipation, as well as other loud, colorful activities. For children with special needs this can be an immensely stressful time of year full of many challenges at home, in school and throughout the community. The holidays are full of potential triggers for children with autism, anxiety and other special needs. By planning ahead and having alternate plans, you can help make the holiday season less stressful for your child. It is important to speak with any visiting friends and family member as well as those whose homes you will be visiting. Share with them any special behaviors, quirks or sensitivities of your child so that they may better understand your child and his (and your!) needs and expectations.
For children with anxiety, anticipation is a big trigger in the time leading up to the holidays. This feeling often leads to anxiety overload, causing them to have a melt down just before, during or after the holiday. For these children, keeping the holidays low-key helps greatly. It’s okay to treat the holiday as an important day, but not in an over-the-top crazy way. To some children, piles of wrapped presents that cannot be opened can be stressful. Keeping these gifts out of sight can help children get stressed about waiting, and possible even opening gifts too early.
At this time of year, there is always an overload of sensory stimuli such as lights, music, bells, odors, tastes, crowds, and hugging. There are strategies for each of these situations; if you can speak with your child and discuss what elements are the most stressful, you can formulate a plan. For example, if certain smells upset your child, consider getting an artificial tree and battery-operated candles. If lights are a trigger, try ones that don’t blink. Decorate tastefully, leaving plenty of space throughout the home so that it doesn’t feel overdone or overcrowded with seasonal items. Try listening to instrumental, relaxing holiday music instead of loud, “busy” music. While planning visits to the mall, try to go during less-crowded times, when your child is well-rested and not hungry.
Family visits can be especially stressful for children with autism, sensory processing disorder, or other special needs. Prepare your child for any dinners or social events in advance. Discuss who will be visiting or where you will be going. Explain that it’s okay if he doesn’t want to hug or shake hands. Let him know there will be a quiet place where he can go to relax; this can be in your home or in someone else’s home (ask your host in advance). Be sure to prepare items such as noise cancelling headphones, a weighted blanket, a stuffed animal, tablet or books. Whatever soothes your child should be available to him, either in your home or in a backpack packed for the day.
It is important to let your child know that it is okay to feel a bit ‘off’ during the hectic, crowded time of the holidays. Let him know that his normal routine will return after the dinner/visit/outing. Work with your child to be sure to get positioned in a place (a corner of someone’s living room, a separate quiet room, a seat in a house of worship such as an aisle near the exit) that offers some comfort and an exit strategy.
An important element to consider is YOUR level of stress. If you are feeling out of sorts and overwhelmed, your special needs child will likely react to your stress. It is at this time that you need to take care of you. Breathe. Take a bath. Go for a walk. Take a break and ground yourself, so that your child will relax too.
Here are some tips from A Day in Our Shoes (adayinourshoes.com) that can function as a checklist for the holidays with children with special needs:
School Holidays and the Special Needs Child
- Communication is key! Communicate with your child’s teacher, read the school website. Find out what changes are going to happen as best as you can. Prepare your child for these changes–different meals, assemblies, early dismissals, whatever it may be.
- Ask your teacher to have a “one sheet” included in her sub-folder about your child. This should include the necessary information that a sub would need to know about your child and what may cause him anxiety.
- Have daily briefings at breakfast and dinner. It sounds formal, but it doesn’t have to be. Just talk about what is going to happen that day or what did happen that day. What will be different?
- Contact his therapists or whoever works with your child and ask if they can do more role-playing, scripting and/or social stories related to holiday festivities.
Holidays with a Special Needs Child at Home
- If you haven’t sent out holiday cards in a while (not many people do it anymore!), consider sending them to the people you will come into contact with, might be visiting or might be staying with this holiday season. This is an easy and private way to share your child’s “quirks” and expectations.
- Talk with your child. Find out what their expectations are and make sure everyone is on the same page. Prepare them as best you can. Again, consider the morning and evening daily briefings.
- Pick your battles. Food doesn’t have to be an issue. Consider bringing some healthy snacks with you to family dinners. If your child refuses to wear a shirt and tie, it’s okay!
- When visiting, bring things that are a comfort to your child, especially if staying overnight. A favorite blanket, pillow, and his own shampoo will go a long way in soothing a child that is not sleeping in his own bed.
- Don’t force affection. This is another item you can explain to friends and family before your visit. If your child does not want to embrace and kiss relatives they barely know, or do not enjoy being hugged, respect that. Explain to the relatives that your child really does care about them, but that this is not how he shows it.
- Have an escape signal or word. Give your child an “out” if it is more than he can handle.
- Go visual. Have a color-coded calendar or some other method of visually outlining what your family is doing. Consider doing it with velcro so that items can be moved and removed if you need to alter your schedules.
- Sensory-friendly events and Quiet Santas are very common around the holidays. These are a great opportunity to participate and be able to relax a little bit.
- Set your child up for success. Pre-arrange conversations with relatives so that your child is included. A simple “I heard that you really enjoyed your school field trip to the museum” might be much more engaging for your child instead of “what’s your favorite subject at school?” but a relative may not know that.
Stress, Holidays and Special Needs Moms.
- Remember that holidays and holiday breaks are intended to be a relaxing time and a “reset” so that you can go back to work/school rested and refreshed. Keep that in mind as you do your holiday schedule.
- Say no. Often. You don’t have to do everything.
- These are good opportunities to educate family and friends about your child’s issues. But, keep your child in mind–do not talk about them in front of them.
The bottom line is that families celebrate holidays in many ways. For families with special needs children, some additional planning may be necessary to comfortably experience this time of year. But with a lot of communication and much planning, it can truly be a magical time of year.
Wishing you and yours a healthy, happy holiday season!
Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only. It is not an attempt to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Always consult your child’s pediatrician with any specific medical questions. MKSA is also available to answer questions about child development. Contact us at 516-731-5588 or www.mksallc.com.