How to Prepare your Special Needs Child During the Holiday Season
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
The holiday season can be full of cheer, love, and peace; however, the schedule change can wreak havoc on our children. Read more for tips to prepare your child for this routine change so your holiday season stays Merry!
We all know that old Christmas Song called "Dashing through the Snow." Although the sound of Christmas Music, the Christmas tree, and Christmas presents may warm many children's hearts, for those with special needs, it can be viewed as a time in the year when the routines are out the window and unpredictability is high! There are new decorations in the house, a Christmas tree, presents under the tree, cooler weather, maybe new smells, and NO School! Wow, what a change. Even though these changes can be positive for children, for those with special needs, even a positive routine change can cause severe distress for our special children. So how can we make and keep our holidays merry?
I am a huge advocate of a visual schedule, not just for the holidays but year-round. Why? Whether your child is autistic, has ADHD, Down Syndrome, cognitive impairment, CP, MS, etc., he/she more than likely thrives in a predictable environment. Many special needs children are more VISUAL learners, which means they "see in pictures" instead of reading words. Although both of my older children (Ages 9 and 7) can read, I use pictures WITH the words (if your child isn't reading at this point, you may want to keep it simple with pictures to minimize the communication barrier). Visual schedules can be purchased on Etsy, amazon or made in your own home with the use of google photos and a laminating machine. Depending upon the child, the schedule can have many details or broken down into parts of the day (Wake up, get dressed, free time, open presents, Grandma's house, shower, bed)
“Visual thinkers of any species, animal or human, are detail-oriented. They see everything, and they react to everything . . . Visual people feel horrible when little details in their visual environments are wrong, the same way animals do.” - Temple Grandin.
Another one of my favorite tricks is using "First/Then Statements." These are short little phrases that will help your child understand what activities are approaching. For example, "Jackson, FIRST brush your teeth, THEN put on shoes." In the holiday context, "Jackson, FIRST presents, THEN Grandma's house" Although these short little phrases might not seem like help to neurotypical people, they can be a HUGE help to those who are very schedule oriented and don't enjoy the unpredictability of the holidays. (Or unpredictability in general. I use first/then statements all day with my children. These can also be used when a child has to do a "non-preferred" task. IE brushing their teeth. "Jackson, FIRST brush teeth, THEN play Xbox) Giving a natural positive reinforcer will help with those non-preferred tasks.
Preparing for Family Get-Togethers
Does your child like the traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas meals? Do they enjoy turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie? If not, I always bring food I KNOW my children will enjoy. For example, my middle son Maddox ONLY eats - mini bagels with peanut butter and Velveeta Macaroni and Cheese cups. Is this the healthiest diet? Of course not. But at this time, we're overcoming some sensory challenges, so we pick our battles! My oldest son only eats the cheeseburgers I cook at home, and the little one? Well, she isn't much into meals now, so I'll bring some snacks I know she will like. Keep in mind; it's the UNPREDICTABILITY that special needs children often struggle with; therefore, if I can bring something predictable, it's bound to help them adapt to the change in routine, smells, etc. On top of that, if your child is starving because they refuse to eat a traditional holiday meal, you will have one cranky kiddo! I always try to remember to pick my battles! Give yourself grace and try to make the holiday as easy on your special kiddo as you can.
In addition to bringing food they will eat, I would always recommend letting them know WHO will be at these events. Similar to a schedule, this can be adapted to your child's current communication level. For example, "Jackson, we're going to Grandma's house; your three cousins will be there, along with Grandma and your Aunt." Again, even if your children enjoy the company of these family members, simply giving them a heads up so they can prepare for the people is highly recommended. In addition, if there will be a pet, someone they still need to meet, tell them that ahead of time so they're not ambushed as soon as they walk in the house! I distinctly remember a get-together with a few friends and their children. I reminded Jackson who would attend, but when we showed up, I forgot to tell him about 2 of the children. Cue, meltdown. He had met these children before, but the unpredictability and his rigid personality were too much on this day. Can we prepare for everything?? Of course not, but we can try to prepare our children the best we can when routines and schedules change.
If your child is overwhelmed and overstimulated with the change, noise, and amount of people and you're noticing behaviors, don't be afraid to GO HOME! Our job as parents is to ensure our kids feel safe and protected. If the stimulation, people, and/or noise are too much, give your family hugs and kisses and head out. Lastly, many special children dislike being touched or having others in their space. If they have met Uncle Ed once before and he is now demanding a hug, give your child the independence to decide who they want in their space and IF they want a hug! Jackson isn't a hugger; he doesn't like people in his space and is very unsure around those he hasn't met often. If I demand that Jackson hugs Uncle Ed, he will immediately go into "Fight or Flight Mode," and you're one step closer to a meltdown. Give children the autonomy to say "No thank you." Remember, our job as parents is to ensure our kids feel safe, not that Uncle Ed is happy with an awkward hug.
Try to Enjoy the Holidays no matter what happens.
Try not to get hung up on some of the expected outcomes of the holiday season. Maybe your child didn't kiss grandma, and that made her sad, had a meltdown at the family dinner, and you had to leave early. Give yourself grace and try to follow your child's lead. We're living a different life than most, and that's okay! Using some of the subtle tricks above can help you, and your child prepare for anything that comes your way this holiday season.