Making Holidays Special for Children with Special Needs
Bright lights, loud noises, unusual foods, and relatives who may be virtual strangers... sometimes the sights and sounds of the holidays are enough to make MY head spin. So I can only imagine how the holiday hustle and bustle must feel to my autistic son and other children who have special needs. While the holiday season is still admittedly our toughest time of the year, I have collected some strategies over the past few years that help make things easier on all of us.
Adapt, adapt, adapt!
I really can't stress the need for adaptability enough. It took me a few years to realize its importance, but once I did, the theory behind it was simple; it's better to have a holiday that strays a bit from tradition than a rigidly "normal" Christmas that ends with everyone being miserable.
Little things that might need to be changed can often be easy to spot. For some reason, my son Brody is terrified of wrapping paper, so we stopped wrapping the presents. He also has a fear of all things new (since they are a deviation from his routine; something autistic children can be particularly obsessive about), so last year instead of piling the gifts under the tree, we placed them sporadically around his playroom and let him discover them on his own.
We also make sure at every holiday to keep at least one aspect of his daily routine the same. Last year, on both Christmas and Thanksgiving, we let Brody wake up at his normal time and have his normal breakfast before beginning any holiday festivities; that little bit of normality really seemed to help despite the chaos of the rest of the day.
Start planning for Christmas in July
Talking about the holidays for weeks or even months before they occur can REALLY make a difference for a child with special needs. This is a lesson that I've learned from the wonderful teachers and therapists at my son's school. I was honestly a little confused when they started reading books about Halloween and playing with costumes in the middle of September. But lo and behold, my son was totally excited for trick-or-treating by the time Halloween came around, and that was definitely a first.
Preparing kids with special needs for what to expect well in advance can really temper the anxiety that seems to wage war on our children — especially when the holiday festivities force us to deviate from their routines.
Get some support
I know that the biggest anxiety over the holidays can sometimes come from having to deal with the reactions/advice/full-on rudeness of family and extended family who may not necessarily understand your child's special needs. Try to explain your child's needs to family and friends well in advance, if at all possible. Things seem to go more smoothly when everyone knows why you might be microwaving your child his typical dinner instead of passing him the yams or why your family may only be able to stay at a large gathering for an hour or so.
I have been blessed with a wonderfully understanding family who loves my son and would make any and every accommodation for him possible. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about my in-laws. So last year I gave them all copies of a letter that I found on the internet, titled Holiday Letter for families with Autism. It is a letter that breaks down and explains exactly why the holidays can be so rough on children with autism and is written from the point of view of an individual with autism.
If all else fails, the best holiday-coping strategy is just to go with the flow. No matter how well you prepare, there will always be a meltdown over something, an ignorant uncle who thinks that your child just needs a "good spanking," or perhaps a visit to the ER to remove an ingested Christmas doodad. (Ornaments that look like candy = worst invention ever.)
Moms, just try your best to focus on the positives, like the one toy that your child absolutely DOES love or maybe even the fact that this season only comes once a year. (Hallelujah!)
How do you prepare yourself and your child for the holidays?
Previous Special Needs Living posts from aurorabunny: