Make the Holidays Manageable for Children with Special Needs

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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 sights and sounds of the holidays, can add up to a season full of stress for children with special needs.

“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 difficult moments, so we try to prepare our boys as best we can.”

Here are tips to 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 meal at Aunt Sophie’s, making a detailed itinerary of the day is 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 are 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 relatives if your child 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 daughter with disabilities. “I used to want to do everything myself. 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.”


Travel Well

Traveling over the holidays adds another layer of complexity. Prepare your child as best you can for the trip. Some children respond well to maps and photos so they can 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. The more you prepare your child, the smoother the transition will be.

Be sure to bring the names of doctors and specialists, prescription numbers, extra medication and hearing aid/cochlear implant batteries—just in case.


Prioritize

The best way to help your child deal with holiday busy-ness is to prioritize what’s important. Ask your child what he enjoys most about the holiday season and what parts are difficult 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 most important to us. It's amazing how fast we can cram meaningless stuff into our celebrations.”


Minimize Noise

Extra noise in an enclosed space is 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 celebrating at home, designate your child’s bedroom as a safe “noise-free” place to retreat. If you are away from home, ask if there is a quiet spot your child can go to, if necessary. Even a short break from listening and extra stimulus can help her make it through the celebration.


Be Realistic

As you approach the holiday season, the most important thing is to keep expectations realistic. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Raising Your Spirited Child, suggests that when your family makes holiday plans, to write them out and then cut them in half. Many parents sabotage themselves from the start, thinking they can do it all. Lighten up on things you think you need to do and focus more on things your family wants to do. This adds meaning to your holiday experience.


Prepare for Visits to New Places

Use the following checklist to help children 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.
  • Are religious services accessible? Is there preferred seating for wheelchairs? Is there extra amplification for children with hearing loss?
  • Take a time-out. Find a time and place to rest prior to intensive events, such as a large family dinner or a Christmas show.
  • What to wear? Make sure children with skin sensitivities wear comfortable cottons and soft leggings instead of uncomfortable party wear.
  • Stake it out. If possible, visit the home or venue prior to a celebration, so your child feels more comfortable on the big day.


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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.

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