10 Tips for Special Needs Families Celebrating the Holiday Season


’Tis the season! Bring on the holidays — the parties, the shopping, the decorating, the traditions and the stress! I’m no expert, but I have learned some things while raising my autistic son. Here’s my list of tips for the holidays for special needs families.

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! By this, I mean do your best to know what parties you’ll be attending at least a week ahead of time. I personally try to get all mine figured out by the first of December. I do this because this way I have plenty of time to prepare my son Liam. We talk about what days we are going where, and what we’ll be doing. We talk about whom will most likely be there, and about how long we plan on staying. (That’s not to say we don’t leave early if need be. That leads me into number two.)

2. Have an escape plan. Parties, people and tons of smells and loud noises can be overwhelming to neurotypical people; imagine how it is for someone who is sensitive to all of these things? Always have an escape plan, complete with a code word.

For example, we have two types. We have a code word or a signal for Liam that means he needs some space and quiet. When he says this word or gives us this signal, one of us excuses ourselves from the party and takes Liam to a quiet room, or outside if possible. This code word and signal is reserved for “I can’t take anymore, and I need to go home.” Our families know by now this sometimes happens, and they know if we suddenly excuse ourselves and start saying goodbyes, Liam needs to go.

3. Shop online. Many of us already do that, but I kid you not, as a special needs mom, online shopping can be a lifesaver! The crowds, the noises, the lights, the smells, it’s a lot. Grocery shopping can be hard enough, but Christmas shopping is sometimes super tough. So don’t feel guilty. If you can get it online, do it. If you can order your groceries, have them delivered, or even just go to the store to pick them up, do it.

4. Let go of perfection. The holidays are never perfect. We’re not living in a Norman Rockwell painting. All you should strive for is a peaceful and happy holiday. Which brings me to the tree. My son and I disagree when it comes to the tree. I used to dread doing it because all his favorite ornaments were front and center, pretty much on one branch. I’d move them, and the next time I turned around, he moved them back. I gave up. I let him decorate his way, while I mildly coax him to space them out, and I let it go. Decorating the tree has been so much more enjoyable since I learned this lesson. Remember, they won’t be young forever, and there will come a day they won’t care about decorating the tree. That’s your time to shine!

5. Always take food. Find a nice separated lunch box, or bento box, and pack it with your child’s preferred foods. Or take their favorites as your dish to pass at the party. Don’t force them to eat foods they can’t handle. Food aversions are real, and you don’t want your kid to vomit.

Boy wearing a Christmas sweater

6. Let them be comfy. Many of us like to dress up for the holidays. If you’re like me, it may be the few times a year you don nice clothing and actually wear makeup. But don’t force your kids to dress up. Clothing sensitivities are hell, and how much fun will they have in a scratchy sweater? My solution to this was to design my son an “ugly Christmas sweatshirt.” He can’t handle sweaters of any kind, but he can do sweatshirts. So I designed him one and he loves it. I also buy him nice black sweatpants. That way he’s warm, comfy, and he still looks great.

7. Let us stim. This applies to every day, but I’m adding it here because some parents will distract a stim when at a function or party. Don’t. As long as your child isn’t harming themselves or someone else, let them stim away. It makes us happy. It helps us calm ourselves. It helps us decompress.

8. Take fidgets, tablets, phones and more. Screen time calms us. Let us have it. Also bring fidgets or preferred toys to keep us busy. Maybe include a board game your kids like to play that he or she can share with cousins or friends’ kids. Liam always has a bag of stuff he takes, and his top choices are his tablet, iPhone, squeezy fidgets, a few cars, and a game.

9. Don’t feel bad for saying no. If your child is having a rough day, and you know attending a party will not be conducive to him or her, don’t go. Don’t feel guilty. Stuff happens. We have missed many a party because of this reason. Family and true friends will get it. They may be disappointed, but they will get it. Instead, let your kiddo pick out his or her favorite Christmas movie, grab some snacks and chill.

10. Do what makes your child happy. Do what works for your family. Do for others as you or your child can tolerate. But most of all, enjoy the holiday with your kids. They’re only young once. Make memories you will forever cherish — even if they involve staying home in your jammies.

Follow this journey on A Legion for Liam.

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