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Holidays and Children with Special Needs

The Exceptional Advocate - MilitaryOneSource Newsletter

A popular song describes the holidays as “the most wonderful time of the year.” But the holidays can also add an extra layer of stress on families. If you have a child with special needs, the unfamiliar sounds, smells and visitors can be disruptive. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to minimize the stress and make the holidays more enjoyable for you and your children. The key is preparation.

First, find calm. Find ways to reduce the stress of holiday preparations. Children are good at picking up on your stress level, so it can be helpful to take steps to lower it. Schedule quiet times during the day — short periods when you can give your child your full attention and tune in to their needs. You can even have a “code word” for your child to say when they feel overwhelmed. Promise that if they use the word, you will respond right away. Giving children some control during activities can help reduce their anxiety.

Prepare with pictures. Make a holiday scrapbook with pictures from previous years showing your family baking, trimming the tree, spending time with relatives and more. This is a great way to explain events and help your child not get overwhelmed with such activities.

Set a schedule. Give your child a schedule of events for holiday activities, particularly on days with lots of transitions. It could be a written schedule or one with pictures — even a calendar showing what is planned in upcoming days. Discuss the schedule regularly and provide information for each event. Just knowing what is coming up could help your child feel calmer and safer.

Prevent sensory overload. Children with sensory sensitivities may require a little extra help during the holidays. You may need to:

Limit holiday decorations in your home and turn down music.

Bring ear plugs if you will be in a noisy environment.

Provide toys or sensory fidgets if your child will need to sit still during an event.

Bring along a change of soft clothes if your child needs to wear dress clothes for an event.

Ask family and friends to not use perfume when they visit. Some children are very sensitive to it.

Pack a bag. When visiting friends or relatives, bring a backpack with items your child finds comforting or enjoyable. If your child gets overstimulated, find a quiet place and let them choose things from the backpack.

Work on the gift experience. If your child doesn’t like opening presents because they’re unfamiliar, try wrapping some favorite toys. Unwrapping something familiar can be reassuring. Also, if your child has trouble with fine motor skills, you may want to make presents and cards extra-easy to open. And finally, help your child prepare gifts for others. This teaches them to think about other people’s needs and learn to be kind and helpful.

Give them a job. During family gatherings, children with special needs may benefit from having a job — it can reduce stress from having people in the house. For example, they could take coats or hand around food trays.

Prepare your family. Talk to family members ahead of holiday events. Discuss your child’s specific needs and what helps to keep your child feeling safe and comfortable. Let them know this will make the experience better for everyone.

Ask for help. Friends and family are often glad to help, but they won’t know unless you tell them. Give them a list of things they can do to support you during the holidays — from shopping and cooking to watching your child while you spend time with party guests.