Surviving the Holidays With a Special Needs Child

boy with gift
Keeping it simple
The holidays are stressful for just about everyone. People are in a hurry, lines stretch for miles, things are louder, and it takes a bit longer to get from Point A to Point B. When you have children with special needs, it can be downright painful sometimes. And with autistic kids? Let's just say I sometimes wish I could skip holidays.

Take a school break combined with a lack of consistent schedule and add "strangers" or people your kids aren't used to and it can be a bit of a disaster. But there is a way to survive it! It's called planning. And lots of it.


Try to think of it from your child's perspective. What would be most comfortable for him/her? What is he/she afraid of? Do they like opening tons of presents or prefer to have one large gift? Is a table full of food overwhelming to them? Are large, noisy gatherings going to make him upset? Thinking about the answers to these questions could save tons of headaches (and aspirin!) later. But for now, consider this:

  • Try hosting gatherings yourself (Yes, YOU). Make them potluck, time them for your child's best time of day or night. If you go to someone else's house, have a few of your child's favorite foods ready JUST IN CASE. They might actually surprise you and eat half the turkey instead of the ever appetizing honey nut O's, but meltdowns can be avoided if there is a comforting and recognizable food item on hand. Aunt Edna will get over it if Junior doesn't eat her sweet tater marshmallow casserole.
  • If you are hosting gatherings, it might be helpful to hire a babysitter or mother's helper to maintain your sanity. We're fortunate to have a fabulous teenager living right across the street that follows our kid around and keeps him out of trouble when we are entertaining. A few dollars maintains our sanity. Well, what's left of it, anyway.
  • Keep the guest list for gatherings to a minimum. More people means more food and more chaos and MORE NOISE. If your kids are extra-sensitive to noise like mine, having 30 people is just asking for trouble. If it's someone else's home, try to bring things that will comfort your child and ask your host if you can set up an area for them (like a playroom, basement, etc.) to hang out in. My family and friends know that my younger son will be taking a bath and will be in there the entire party (so not kidding).
  • If you are traveling, try to plan it around your child's meal, nap, and sleep schedule as much as possible. This goes for any kid, special or typical. Most children behave best when they know what to expect. Make a social story and read it several times before leaving. If you have overnight stays, try to find a place with a POOL and BREAKFAST INCLUDED. Best thing we ever did driving from Philly to Salt Lake (yes we did that, yes we're insane) was pick hotels with water slides and sprinkler fountains in them. Pools + autistic/ADHD kids = SLEEP THROUGH THE NIGHT.
  • If your child abso-smurfly detests Santa? DO NOT GO TO SEE SANTA. It isn't worth scaring the daylights out of the poor kid. Just because you want a "cute picture" doesn't mean they want it. We've successfully avoided him for years, thank goodness. And we can't "do" Santa at home, either. The rule is no strangers in the house!! So our son won't let him in the house. No milk and cookies. Sooooo much easier.
  • Skip the malls and stores and do online shopping. You can find amazing coupons and deals online. Shop ahead of time, don't wait until the last minute!  And whatever you do, do NOT bring your kids to the store or mall at the busiest times. If you do, plan on the old "flounder routine" on the floor. Go early, like when they first open, if possible. I might admit to being there when the doors open on Black Friday if you pay me enough. I can also be bribed with electronics.
  • Make lists. Check them twice. Or three or four times if you have sleep deprivation induced memory loss, like I do. Make lists of the gifts you have to purchase and keep lists of the food items you must buy and prepare.
  • Ever hear of K.I.S.S? Keep It Simple, Stupid? The simpler, the better. Consider gift bags instead of wrap. Limit the number of toys and focus on a few well-planned gifts. Plan a menu that is simple and less time-consuming to arrange. You'll remember (and enjoy) much more. And so will your children!

Have any of tips that worked for you?


Image via Marj Hatzell

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