The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone. Those stresses can be even worse for children with special needs. Here are my tips on how to not just survive, but enjoy the holiday season.
This is the time or the year for social stories and visual schedules. My son Ross can become extremely anxious at new or unfamiliar places so we use these and other similar tools. We also look at pictures of friends and relatives so he remembers they are not new and we look at pictures of holiday locations if they are available. Anything we can do to make events and places seem less unfamiliar we attempt to do.
Bring Everything, Or Close To It
Headphones, chewies, books, video games… your child’s personal list will vary but if it will fit in the car or suitcase then I would bring it. This goes for trips across the country to see relatives or a holiday event only two miles away. With the over stimulation and potential new activities and places that the holidays entail it is hard to predict what will help regulate your child. Usually noise canceling headphones and the occasional phone video game break in the next room help my son but occasionally reading a book works so I throw that in too.
Set Realistic Expectations
I have learned to accept that my son will not eat well at holiday events. I make sure he has a good meal beforehand and bring some fruit or peppers with us but inevitably there will be very little he likes other than the dessert table. He is in feeding therapy but eating food outside the house has not improved much. I set expectations so that he knows that he needs to eat healthy food before the event but then I let it slide during the event. Holiday food often has new and different smells which he struggles to tolerate be around let alone eat. Holidays don’t happen every day and I want him to enjoy it (and I want to enjoy it without fighting him tooth and nail too).
I also set realistic expectations for how long we will “last” at an event. If an event is nearby, and it’s an option, we sometimes bring two cars so that he can go home and my other kids can stay. Ross may know we need to stay until the candies are lit or dinner is done but after that we can leave. This helps him know what the options are and my husband and I can be realistic about what he can do.
We plan an “exit strategy. Who will take him home or to a calmer place and who will stay with my younger kids. I’ll ask a relative where a good place for him to get away is and he has been known to regularly hide in Bubbie’s (my mother in law’s) room at events hosted at her house.
Prepare Family and Friends
How much you choose to tell your family and friends about your child’s differences is personal preference. I tend to be very open with family and close friends. I find it is easier to tell them in advance, “the situation might be overwhelming so Ross may not feel like playing with your child,” or “gifts produce a lot of anxiety for Ross”. It avoids questions later and sometimes those family and friends actually come up with creative solutions to problems.
Like I said, Ross has a lot of anxiety about presents. He loves opening them but gets panicky about the surprise of not knowing what is coming. I mentioned this to a family member when there were going to be presents at an event and she suggested we take the wrapping paper off one end of the gift. It worked! The surprise was gone but the fun wasn’t.