Tackling the Holiday Season With a Special Needs Child

The weather is getting colder and the holidays are right around the corner. No matter which holidays you celebrate, November and December are traditionally a time for family gatherings, vacations, parties, and festivals. This comes with schedule changes, loud noises, decorations, and crowds. For many, this is fun and exciting, but it can also be stressful and overwhelming. 

For families with special needs children, the holidays often result in anything but cheer. Unable to cope with being overstimulated, children often act out, parents may become embarrassed or upset, and everything becomes unhinged.

Everyone deserves to enjoy their time with family and friends, and we have put together some ideas for how to de-stress the holidays for families and kids that may need a break from all the fuss. We know these may not work for every child, but hopefully with a little planning in advance, your holidays will be joyful.

  1. Tackle the family calendar. It is no secret that life gets busier during the holidays. In addition to the already crowded family calendar, special events, parties, and extra errands pop up during November and December. For a family with a child who thrives on a schedule, a color-coded calendar can be a huge help. Print out a basic calendar or use a white board, and choose a different color marker for each person or activity. Anything that is new just for the holidays can have its own “holiday” color. Remind your child each day when there is a new event. For younger children, try stickers or pictures to help identify activities.   
  2. Rethink decorations. Many children with sensory issues can get overwhelmed when there is a lot of visual “noise.” You know your child best, and if he or she is someone that might struggle with too much glitter and gold, then keep decorations at home simple. You may even try and avoid places that are overly decorated. The holiday season is about what you make of it, not what you spend on electricity and greenery. Consider creating your own decorations: search Pinterest for crafts that you and your child can do together. For example, cutting paper snowflakes or stringing popcorn for your tree are great activities for building fine motor skills. And, making decorations together allows you to spend time together, creates a sense of accomplishment, and results in lasting memories. 
  3. Allow for breaks. Family dinners and holiday parties can be loud, long, and exhausting. Everyone deserves some alone time and that is okay. Remind your child that he or she can take a break from these and other events when and if a break is needed. If the parties or family dinners are not at your house, try to ask the host ahead of time where in the house your child can go when they need a break. If you are at a public space, scope it out and see where they can relax quietly if needed. If there is not a safe spot, allow your child to bring their favorite toy or video game so they can “chill” while everyone else is chatting or finishing dinner. Or, try bringing headphones for your child so they can “zone out” at the table. 
  4. Consider vacations. Winter break is a traditional time for large family vacations, and of course, they can be expensive. It is upsetting to spend a lot of money only to have the vacation not go as planned, or to get back home and realize you need a vacation from the vacation. But, many resorts now offer special accommodations for families with children with disabilities or special needs. These offerings can be lifesavers by making things easier and allowing you to be able to relax while you are on vacation. To find resorts that offer these amenities, check with your resort or check out this website.  
  5. Plan ahead for special excursions. While not as involved as vacations, local outings such as visits to Santa or shopping for presents are also popular excursions this time of year. Given the large crowds at malls and shopping centers, this can be overwhelming for anyone, especially a child with special needs. Some places have taken this into consideration and have created special times for special children. You should be able to find a schedule at your local mall or shopping area.  
  6. Let your child be in charge. Most families have holiday traditions they want to follow every year. It can be frustrating when your children do not seem to care about the traditions, or do not want to participate. While we do not want to lose long-standing traditions, it can be fun to create new ones by asking your child what they would like to do for the holidays. Ask your child what decorations they want to put up, what foods they want to eat, what type of cookies they want to make, or what activities sound the most fun. By engaging your child, they will feel a part of the holiday and are less likely to get frustrated. 
  7. Let it go. Friends and family members may mean well, but they often provide advice or suggestions on how you should parent. This seems to happen more frequently during the holidays, since family and friends you have not seen for a while may not be used to your child’s behaviors. Try to let it go. Alternatively, you can prepare a respectful response to let well-meaning relatives learn more about your child. You can use these suggestions, or you can create your own and practice so you are prepared.
    • Thank you, but ___________ has an illness. We are working with their doctor and therapist, but appreciate your suggestions and will keep them in mind. “
    • “Thank you.  __________ has autism. He has a tough time sitting during long crowded dinners. He would love to [talk to you about __________ ][play with you] one on one if you want to talk to him after dinner.”

As we said, every child is different, and you know your child best. Hopefully some of these will help make you and your family’s holiday season smooth and joyful, and your child with special needs will not feel left out, overwhelmed, or begin to dread this time of year.