Holidays provide your family with a break from the ordinary, time spent with extended family and friends, and also a chance to reinforce traditions. However, jammed schedules and unpredictable routines, mixed with the sights and sounds of the holidays can add up to a season full of stress for your child with special needs.
“The change in routine is the biggest difficulty we have during the holidays,” says Sharla Jordan, mother of six boys (four with special needs) and author of “Autism: Understanding the Puzzle.” “The unfamiliarity and excitement can lead to some difficult moments so we try to prepare our boys as best we can.”
The following tips can help make your holiday season run a little smoother.
Set the Stage
It’s all about being prepared. Whether you purchase tickets for a special holiday show, visit a friend’s place of worship, or have a holiday meal at Aunt Sophie’s making a detailed itinerary of the day will be a step towards helping your child be more comfortable.
“This can be a great place to use social stories, says Deborah Michael, a pediatric occupational therapist. “Any time change and uncertainty creep into your child’s schedule, a social story can help walk them through the steps to help ease anxiety.”
Don’t be Shy
Ask your host what activities she has planned for the children, and whether or not there is a quiet space your child can go when he is overwhelmed (or a place he can run around if he needs to blow off steam). Tell your mother-in-law that your daughter does not like to be hugged and not to take it personally. Let your friend know that you might need to leave in the middle of the service.
“My biggest mistake was when I tried to keep everything inside,” says the father of a severely disabled daughter. “I used to want to do everything myself. But, I have learned over the years that my friends and family want to have a relationship with my daughter, they’re just not sure how to go about it. So that is where my expertise comes in.”
Planes, Trains or Automobiles?
Traveling over the holidays can add an additional layer of complexity. Prepare your child as best as you can for the trip. Some children respond well to maps and photos so they are better able to see exactly where they are going. Talk about the steps that are involved in boarding an airplane. Try taking a short train ride to a neighboring town. Again, the more you can prepare your child the smoother the transition will be.
Also, when traveling with your child be aware of troubleshooting issues. Bring the name of doctors, specialists, prescription numbers, extra medication and hearing aid/cochlear implant batteries—just in case.
What Do You Really Want to Celebrate?
Sometimes the best way to help your child deal with holiday stress is to prioritize what’s important. Ask your child what he enjoys most about the holidays and what parts are difficult for him to handle.
“Last year we decided to simplify our Christmas celebration and it made a huge difference,” says Jordan. “We devised a plan to not rush the morning, each son had their own space, and we organized the presents the night before to lessen the anxiety of waiting for another gift to open. We stayed home the rest of the day. We only did the things that were the most important to us. It is amazing how fast we can cram so much meaningless stuff into our celebrating.”
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Extra noise in an enclosed space can be overwhelming.
“Holiday celebrations often have lots of people talking, background music, flashing lights, and decorations,” says Dr. Brad Ingrao, an audiologist. “This extra stimulus can be exhausting for a child to sift through in order to communicate.”
If you are celebrating at home, designate your child’s bedroom as a safe “noise-free” place where they can retreat to. If you are out at a friend’s or relative’s home (or a restaurant) ask if there is a quiet spot that your child can go to if necessary. Even a short break from listening and extra stimulus can help her make it through the celebration.
As you approach the holiday season the most important thing to keep in mind is to keep you expectations realistic. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of “Raising Your Spirited Child,” suggests that when you sit down to make your plans for the holiday season, to write out your plans and then cut them in half. Many parents sabotage themselves from the start thinking that they can do it all. Lighten up on the things you think you need to do, and focus more on the things that you and your family want to do to add meaning to your holiday.
Holidays are often filled with visits to new places.
Use the following as a checklist to help your child adjust.
- Where will your child sit at the meal? The “kid’s table” can be a noisy place. If your child is sensitive to noise and extra stimulus try to find another place for him to eat.
- Religious services. Is accessibility an issue? Is there preferred seating for wheelchairs? What about child w/ hearing loss is there extra amplification?
- Take a time-out. Find the time and place to have your child rest prior to intensive events, such as a large family dinner or trip to a holiday show.
- What to wear? Scratchy, stiff holiday clothes are not the best option if your child is sensitive. Have her wear comfortable cottons and soft leggings instead of the usual party wear.
- Stake it out. If possible visit the home or venue prior to the celebration, this way your child will feel more comfortable on the big day.
Krystyann Krywko, Ed. D. is a writer and education researcher who specializes in hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. She writes from a parental, as well as a personal, perspective. She and her young son and were diagnosed with hearing loss one year apart.