“The holidays are coming.”
That statement is enough for discomfort to become evident on any special needs parent’s face. The holidays are often a hectic, overwhelming time for the special needs child. There are many changes to the schedule and many new experiences that take place.
I remember one Christmas five years ago that just went awful. We were visiting family in Minnesota, and at the time we lived in Florida. Needless to say, we flew in as soon as the doctor gave me the OK to fly while pregnant with my second child. My son was two years old and freshly smacked with the Autism diagnosis.
I didn’t really know what to expect, as this was our first Christmas with my husband’s family. We made it through dinner just fine, but when it came time for presents, our holiday celebration took a sharp turn. My son didn’t understand that all the presents weren’t his and as his eight-year-old cousin opened her first gift, my son decided to try to get it away from her. When she failed to let go of her gift, he reached up and grabbed her neck.
After four adults got my son off of his cousin, I was in tears and it was too late for words. I quickly apologized and took him to the lower level of grandma’s house. We stayed there for the rest of the evening. I felt just terrible but the truth is, over half the people in my husband’s family were hearing the word “autism” for the very first time. Honestly, I didn’t know enough about it either to truly dissect at the time.
Knowing what I know now, I still may not have been able to prevent this incident of aggression, but I have learned quite a bit about being prepared for the holidays as a special needs parent. There are many things you can do to avoid the possible “awful experience” like mine and survive the holidays.
Here are a few helpful strategies for the special needs family…
- Create Autism Info Cards.There are many templates that can help you available online. You can purchase business card sheets and print them from home. The main point is to provide information about your child’s disability. You may not be able to explain your child’s behaviors while celebrating the holidays in a crowded home. Handing out a card is simple; you could even teach your child to hand them out to family and friends upon arrival.Here is an example: “My child has autism, a complex neurological disorder that impairs social interaction and communication. We ask for your understanding and appreciate your support.”
- Start Celebrating Early.Get the decorations out as soon as possible. If your child communicates using PECS or another communication device, get the pictures and programs rolling now. There are many printable holiday pictures online that you or a therapist can start working with.Make a practice dinner and celebrate early. It’s never too soon to begin educating your special needs child. Invite over a few friends if you can. Give your child a special task, such as putting napkins or silverware on the table. Involving your special needs child will keep them busy and make them more aware of the holiday celebration rituals.
- It’s O.K. To Go Off SchedulePrepare everyone in the family in case this experience may be too overstimulating for your child and make it known that you may have to either go out for a drive or a walk or perhaps leave early. Ask the host if there is a room in the house you can retreat to if your child needs a calm hide-out for a while to avoid leaving early. If your child doesn’t like noise, try bringing headphones. Either way, work out a plan with your family and drive two cars if you feel leaving may become a reality. You can see if it would be possible to return a little later or have a relative relieve you so you can return for a bit.
- Bring Food From HomeIt’s just fine to show up with a plate of food for your special needs child if they are on a special diet or have preferred foods that they turn to for comfort. They may not eat what’s present. Just be upfront about it and still encourage your child to eat what’s been made if their diet allows.
- Bring Toys and Preferred ItemsIf you’re celebrating outside of your home, bring lots of toys and games in your car. Pack up their most beloved, time-consuming favorites, such as the iPad or puzzles. Most people have a DVD player, so pack a few of their favorite flicks, too. Before lugging them in, see what’s already available and if your child can be content without them first. Pull them out if you get in a rut and cannot satisfy your child any other way.
- Create Social Stories For The Holidays.Gather pictures of family and create a few simple stories of what to expect. Again, there are lots of pre-made social stories online. You can help your special needs child become familiar with distant relatives, dinner, opening gifts,and even traveling for the holidays. Make several copies to set around the house and keep in his backpack to pull out during break times at school. You could also request that they use it with your child during school therapies.Another good idea I have seen is printing out pictures of relatives, cutting them out and gluing them on popsicle sticks. If you have a dollhouse, you can let your child use them as people and pretend you are celebrating. Role playing is a great way to help your child know what to expect while celebrating.
- Lastly, Enjoy The Holidays!As a special needs family, it’s important to reflect on all progress and to be thankful for even the chaos. Be proud of your little one and advocate strongly. Remember, every year is a learning experience…what you don’t know this year, you will for sure know for next year!
Michelle O’Neill, AHSS Skills Coach and Mother of a Special Needs Child … Plus Two!