Helping Your Children With Disabilities Cope and Engage During the Holidays


The holiday season is upon us and it seems that no matter what holiday you and your family celebrate or how you celebrate it, one common factor prevails from family to family: the holidays bring crowds.

Even when sharing the spirit of the holidays with just our relatives, it usually means putting out just one more place setting or wrapping one more gift. But to children with disabilities, the amount of love and tidings being shared during a holiday can be too much to handle. The internet is riddled with ideas and suggestions to help your child with disabilities cope during the holidays, while at the same time allowing them to engage in the smiles and laughter that make these seasons bright.

I am excited to share some of the ideas that help to inform me as a theatre instructor and as a loving aunt to two nephews on the spectrum.

Coping with Over-Stimulation

The bright lights, festive smells and greetings of cheer all around are not everyone’s favorite parts of the holidays, especially those with sensory sensitivities. For a child with disabilities, seeing relatives who they may be around only a few times a year or encountering new smells, might send them running for a quiet corner.

1. Have a “safe brain space.”

Designate a spot before the festivities begin that other guests know is off-limits to them for the evening. Personalize this space for your child, letting them know this is their spot, and theirs alone, to go have a break if the tidings around them become too much.

2. Review names and relationships to guests.

Rehearse before a seasonal shindig, especially if your child does not see these guests often. Go through photo albums, perhaps reminding them of fun times they shared or positive anecdotes about the person. This will make your child more comfortable when greeted by them.

3. Prepare your hosts/guests on your child’s sensitivities.

While you don’t need to provide rank and file of every diagnosis, do feel free to simply be honest about realistic and foreseeable occurrences. For example, your son may not be fond of physical touch, so when greeting guests or phoning family members beforehand, you might say, “Our family is so excited to be coming/that you are coming this year! Just as a reminder, Johnny doesn’t really give hugs and kisses, but he loves to high-five!”

4. Give your child an itinerary/social story for the night.

Have an itinerary explain things, like the fact that standing around and chatting/smalltalk is to be expected before dinner at 6 pm or that there may be times when cooking goes on, so they can avoid certain rooms, like the kitchen. Be sure to add times you want him/her with the family so they transition easier (greeting family, planned games, dinner, opening gifts, etc.).

Engaging and Bringing Your Child and Family Together

I have seen through my work with 4th Wall Theatre Company that there is great value in engaging children with disabilities with others, especially with their family and loved ones.

1. Incorporate specific times for family to bond.

Build these moments around your child’s abilities. The “Thankful for Me and You” game is great; it starts with each person at the table (or wherever you gather) sharing a positive affirmation about themselves, like “I am thankful I am organized” or “I am thankful I am creative,” after they share a statement about themselves they can then share a positive affirmation about each member of the group (or have each person choose one guest to keep it short). Try to encourage the guests at your table to keep statements simple, as an example to your child. If your child is nonverbal, encourage them to draw a picture to explain what they are thankful for about themselves and about others beforehand.

2. Allow your child to participate in the family meal.

Give them a job handing out dinner rolls or taking drink orders. This will help them feel involved in the meal, more likely to participate and sit for a longer period of time.

3. Let your child participate in gift giving.

Help your child to make a list of guests and take them to the dollar store to pick out something of their choice for each relative/loved one. If it is difficult for them to make a decision, give them a choice between two things for each person. You might find him or her excited when the day comes to give the gifts out. This will allow you to still buy gifts for the family yourself, without breaking the bank.

The holidays can be a stressful time with a lot to deal with, but the resounding theme of the tips offered is to be prepared! Feel free to talk to your family and prepare them with ideas for coming to your home or what might be the best environment for your child at their home. And be sure to take a break for yourself this holiday season!

A version of this post appeared on 4th Wall Theater Company.

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