For many parents of children with special needs, the stretch of time between October and January can feel like one big inhale. Between dressing up for Halloween, socializing over Thanksgiving, turning back clocks for Daylight Savings, and of course, the countless festivities associated with Hanukkah, Christmas, Ramadan and other holidays, there are a lot of big events where kids are expected to be on their best behavior. The sights, smells, sounds, and expectations can make a neurotypical child irritable; it can do that and more for a child with special needs.
While no amount of preparation can make the holidays easy, there are many things you can do to make them easier. Here are seven tips for helping your child with special needs navigate the season with a little more joy.
1. Safe Space
Whenever you visit a person’s house or stay at your own, establish a “safe zone” for your child so that she can retreat and be alone, if desired. This may be a room in the house or even a desk she can crawl under for a time.
2. Maintain Routines — as Much as Possible
Quite likely, there will be routines forsaken, forgotten or simply adjusted for festivities. Many children with sensory issues or autism struggle with such change. As a result of their brains and bodies adapting well, they may become overly disorganized and overstimulated; more, they likely will exhibit more sensory seeking/avoidance behaviors and have meltdowns more frequently. If an occupational therapist has made recommendations for a special sensory diet, try to maintain those activities as much as possible to foster physical and emotional regulation.
3. Introduce Sensory Input Slowly
For many of the Fall and Winter holidays, sensory input is at a maximum. Between Christmas’ twinkling lights and Hanukkah’s fragrant oils cooking, many children with special needs are easily overwhelmed. To help with this adjustment, introduce new sites, smells, and sounds one at a time, when possible. Combine it with familiar, cozy sensory input as well.
4. Utilize Tools
Ask a pediatric therapist for recommendations of equipment or tools that may help your child and family. For children with physical challenges, TheraTogs and Kinesio Tape may be useful. Children with autism may benefit from weighted blankets, earmuffs, and specialty sand. Those with ADHD often find comfort in fidget toys and calming jars.
5. Prep Family
If you’ll be spending time with family and friends who haven’t been around your child much, consider giving them a little tutorial in advance. This will help avoid hurt feelings when Madison doesn’t want Grandma’s hugs or Adam refuses to touch Uncle Luis’ casserole. If you aren’t yet comfortable giving all the details of your child’s condition, just offer ideas on how your child best responds. For instance, Madison loves high fives more than hugs or Adam is still learning how to try new foods.
6. Simplify Opening Presents
For children who struggle with fine motor skills, reduce frustration by adjusting presents and cards. Loosen ribbons, unseal envelopes, and minimize tape so your child can feel successful with little frustration. He’ll feel a sense of satisfaction over the ability to complete tasks.
7. Enlist a Support Team
Identify at least one other person who will be on your side during the gathering. This person can help ensure the special space is prepared ahead of time or that your child is taken care of while you visit and eat.
There are many aspects of holiday celebrations that can be frustrating and stressful for families of children with special needs. While it’s impossible to cover every possible concern, following these suggestions should make the season more enjoyable for everyone.