For many special needs parents, the holidays are challenging. Holidays mean family gatherings, parties, and shopping. Having a kid with autism this time of year hasn’t always been easy but over the years, it’s gotten better, and I’ve learned some things along the way.
I’m excited to share 13 Holiday Tips for Special Needs Parents from Cara Koscinski, occupational therapist and author of The Pocket Occupational Therapist Book Series.
- Allow children who are overwhelmed by sights and sounds of shopping to stay home. Allow kids to have a pajama and movie night while you’re shopping.
- If a child must attend the shopping trip, schedule downtime or breaks for children to de-sensitize. This can be located in the car with some crunchy snacks, a weighted blanket, and some calming music.
- Encourage children to make a list of preferred toys well in advance. Give family lists of toys to choose from. I even purchase the toys my children will enjoy and provide them to my local family members ahead of time. We sometimes have a “trunk sale” and everyone chooses which give they will buy and wrap for my boys.
- Go at a time of day when children are well-rested and not hungry. Do not rush and arrive early.
- Write a letter or speak to the photographer ahead of time. Most studios will schedule extra time for children who have special needs. Request a photographer who is patient. If possible, schedule a photographer to visit your family outside of the studio. We have found that this may be a more affordable option than a studio because of low-overhead costs.
- Be flexible. Consider that “fancy” clothes are often scratchy, have tags, and may contain textures that aren’t familiar to children. Permit the child to wear comfortable versions of colors that you’d like the family portrait to have.
Visits with Santa
- If children do agree to see Santa, create a social story with pictures of Santa, including his beard, velvet/soft red suit, and the setting in which Santa will be located. Go to the location prior to the visit and watch other children. Practice, practice, practice!
- Create a “safe-zone” to which the child can go whenever they feel overwhelmed. Set a password or sign that your child can use to excuse himself. Place a bean bag, calming music, a heavy blanket, and favorite hand fidget toy in the area. Practice ahead of time.
- Create a letter to family members prior to family gatherings to explain your child’s wonderful progress toward goals and suggestions for conversation topics. For example: “Joshua’s had a wonderful year in therapy. He’s learned how to tie his shoes, take one turn during conversations, and how to write in cursive. Joshua likes Angry Birds. Here’s a link to the Angry Birds’ website if you’d like more information. Please know that even though he’s not looking directly into your eyes, he IS listening to you and loves you!”
- At mealtime, make sure to serve a preferred food so that children who have feeding difficulties can successfully participate.
- Give kids a job to do so that they will have a sense of belonging and success. Even something such as helping to create place markers for seating or setting the table can give kids a feeling of accomplishment.
- Remember that heavy work is generally calming. Include activities such as moving chairs, picking up and placing dirty clothes into a basket and carrying it to the laundry room, or vacuuming are great ways to encourage children to help to prepare for the party.
- Plan an “out” or an escape plan. Even a short visit that is successful can create memories that last a lifetime!
The Holidays are meant to be fun. Enjoy them with your family!