10 Tips for Visiting Our Special Needs Family During the Holidays
It’s Hanukkah, and our family couldn’t be happier. Eating latkes smothered in sour cream and applesauce. Lighting the menorah together and watching the candles slowly burn all evening. Observing the kids’ hysteria build as it gets closer and closer to the moment they get to open presents. Adding fuel to the hysteria by throwing jelly donuts and Hanukkah cookies into the mix. We wait all year for these eight crazy days of fun, and it’s finally here!
In addition to deep-fried food, candles and gifts, we look forward to celebrating by inviting the people we love the most to come to our home to share in our fun; however, with our son Nate’s disability, having visitors can be tricky.
Nate’s a little slow to warm up to newcomers. He doesn’t put much effort into making our guests feel welcome and would probably prefer if they didn’t come at all. Instead of demonstrating his growing vocabulary, emerging social skills, successful toilet training and full-body hugs, he’ll likely choose to scream loudly and often, refuse to greet visitors and amp up the obstinacy he’s so good at!
For many of us raising children with disabilities, welcoming people into our homes around the holidays can be stressful. So, in preparation for our most welcomed and highly anticipated visitors, here are some tips for visiting our family:
1. Focus on skills, not deficits.
When visiting our home, you will definitely notice Nate demonstrating inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors. He will hit his mom when he’s frustrated. He will scream when he doesn’t get his way. He will be spoon-fed instead of feeding himself. Keep in mind, though, that for every “bad” behavior you see, there are other skills we’ve been tirelessly chipping away at. Did you notice he’s toilet-trained? He says please and thank you? He most likely won’t undress in front of visitors? We work hard every day to improve, and we also have become good at picking our battles. Most importantly, we’re so incredibly proud of how far he’s come.
2. Transitions can be hard.
For us, it happens every single time. Nate doesn’t stop what he’s doing and moves on to the next activity without some protest. Sometimes it’s a little yell, and sometimes he’ll really let it rip. We almost never decide to not switch activities. His protest doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to do what’s next, and it doesn’t mean he’ll protest the whole time. Just push through, wait five minutes and he’ll recover. Ear plugs are optional but recommended.
3. Remember that he understands more than he speaks.
Nate listens and understands what you’re saying. His feelings can get hurt, and he can form ideas about himself based on what he hears people say about him. Please be thoughtful about his feelings and self-esteem. Of course, he’s a fantastic secret keeper, so you can confide in him and know with confidence that his lips are sealed.
4. Let him warm up slowly.
Start with a wave from across the room or maybe a high-five. Nate may not remember you from last time he saw you and might be feeling more stress about your visit than he can express or understand. Give him time and lots of chances. Be interested in his toys, his room, his favorite TV show, his Xbox and his dog. He’ll come around.
5. Don’t take it personally.
Nate will probably tell you to leave and maybe even to shut up while you visit. He might turn his back on you and refuse to acknowledge your presence. Please don’t feel hurt. He isn’t intentionally trying to hurt your feelings. He is just expressing his discomfort in the only way he knows how.
6. Ask lots of questions.
We understand that Nate is different from any other kid you know, and that much of what he does appears confusing or weird. It’s amazing, though; once you know Nate better, a lot of his behaviors and language are more understandable. Ask us questions, and we will do our best to answer them. If you ask a question we’re not comfortable answering, we’ll let you know. Mostly, we’d love to tell you what we’re working on, which methods we’ve found helpful (and which ones aren’t) and our thoughts about Nate’s future. In fact, he’s one of our favorite topics.
7. Give siblings all the attention they deserve.
While Nate’s antics can take up more than his share of the attention, remember that our other son, Isaac, is here, and he needs and deserves to have his family show equal interest in his goals, challenges and plans for the future. Just like Nate, he is an incredible kid. In fact, show interest in his Xbox and his dog and you’ll make him happy, too.
8. Watch how we interact and do what we do.
The best way to learn how to be with Nate is to watch his family. Mom, Dad and Isaac are Nate experts and know what works. We know when to be firm, when to use distraction, when to offer a reward and when to resort to a time-out. Most everything we do is thoughtful, intentional and done with years of experience behind it. Be wary of offering suggestions, especially in the middle of a stressful situation. It’s safe to assume we’ve tried everything (twice) and have zeroed in on what does and doesn’t work for us.
9. Jump in to help.
Don’t wait to be asked. If Nate needs to take a walk during a long sit-down dinner, offer to take him. If he wants company watching “Justice League,” sit with him. If it’s bedtime, offer to read him a story. It’s not always easy for Nate’s parents to ask for help, but it’s usually very much appreciated.
10. Love him for exactly who he is.
Nate is silly, loud, inconsiderate, affectionate, extremely messy and a total handful. He can make you laugh and, minutes later, cause you to pull your hair out in frustration. He will drop a rock in your drink when you’re about to take a sip and tell you to shut up when you compliment his T-shirt. Love him in spite of it. No, better yet, love him because of it. Take time to get to know him and learn what makes him such an incredible, complex, multi-dimensional person. Nate is one of our never-ending sources of love and happiness, and we are so overjoyed to share him with you.
Happy holidays to everyone celebrating this time of year!
A version of this post originally appeared on Informing Families.
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