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10 Tips for Stress-Free Holidays With Your Special Needs Family

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a mother with her two sons

At the risk of sounding like Mrs. Grinch, I have a confession. I don’t like the holidays. There, I said it. Perhaps if we could go back to celebrating Halloween and Thanksgiving prior to the barrage of decorations, cards, food, dinner party invitations, commitments, more food, and endless marketing campaigns, I might be more amenable to this time of year. I am not, and not for the reason those of you who know me might think.

I have two children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) and other special needs. All of these images of the holidays that often bring feelings of joy, love and excitement used to bring feelings of anxiety and confusion for my family. Thankfully, with the help of many years of therapy, both of my sons are now able to participate in many of the year-end celebrations with less stress on them and us.

Holidays are typically about traditions. Here is the thing I have learned about traditions: They are wonderful if they are working. I remember as a newly-married Jewish woman to a man who had been raised Catholic, I had conversations with my husband about our shared vision of family traditions. Little did we know that in two years we would welcome our first son and learn that he had different needs, which would necessitate new traditions. Before I heard the words “sensory processing disorder” (a condition that exists when sensory signals do not always get organized into appropriate responses), I knew something about the world was not working for my son. Events and celebrations that were supposed to be joyful for him and us were stressful at best and disastrous more often than not.

In an effort to make the holiday more enjoyable for our son and us, we decided to host Thanksgiving. We invited our extended family to join us in our home in hopes of taking away that stressor for our son. It proved to be one of the best holiday gifts we have given ourselves, and our extended family enjoys the holiday as well (full disclosure: my husband cooks a mean turkey).

I share this story with you, fellow parents of children who have special needs, and urge you not to worry. You do have options. I have listed a few below. Perhaps one of them can help your family this year.

1. Preparation is not just for turkeys. Explain to your child and family what you desire to happen.

“We will go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house at 3 p.m. and will stay until 9 p.m.; your cousins, aunts and uncles will be there, and Uncle Rich will more than likely be watching football. If you need a break, you may join Uncle Rich with your iPad (music, etc.). Remember, sometimes things don’t go as planned. I really appreciate it if you can try to be as flexible as possible. Let Dad or me know if you need a break.”

My husband and I have found explaining to our boys what to expect ahead of time can help minimize their (and therefore our) anxiety.

2. The best laid plans… I learned to have a backup plan to my backup plan. When my children were little, this would consist of a change of clothing (who am I kidding, more like three), favorite toys, extra food (especially if we were going out to eat), music, headphones, etc. I would also prepare them with the warning that things don’t always go as planned. My oldest son can get upset if we deviate from what he expects. An example of this would be not eating dinner at “dinner time.” He will state, “You said we would eat at 6 p.m., but it is 6:07. Where is my dinner?” I taught my son what “ish” means. When we say we will eat at 6ish, what we really mean is some time between 5:45 and 6:15.

3. Accommodating accommodations. Special needs parents are often excellent advocates for their children during IEP and 504 meetings. Why is it that we seem to lose these skills when we are dealing with our family and friends? Once my husband and I were ready and able to ask those closest to us for help (and spell out what we needed), holidays became less stressful. For us, it meant hosting Thanksgiving so our autistic son would have the ability to check in and out of the room as necessary to accommodate his sensory issues.

4. Sensory. All those wonderful smells that can conjure memories from your childhood also have the potential to make your child with sensory issues feel apprehensive and overwhelmed. Many people may not understand this; I didn’t until I had a son with SPD. If possible, tactfully explain that the smell of the Christmas tree and scented candles can be overwhelming for your child. Ask your host if it would be acceptable to move the candles during your visit, and explain why. I’ve found most people truly want to help and need guidance.

Have a quiet plan. Explain to your host how all the excitement during this time of year can sometimes overwhelm your child. Then ask if your son or daughter may take refuge in another room from time to time.

5. Set realistic goals for your child and yourself. We were able to enjoy Thanksgiving for the first time when we hosted. The reason? Our son was comfortable in our home, and therefore we could relax. We had learned by then that we had to set expectations, and not only for our son. “People are coming over to celebrate the holiday. They want to spend time with you. Do you think you might be able to visit for a few moments?” Extended family and friends, too: “It can be really exhausting for E to be social, therefore he might check out. Please do not feel offended if he goes off by himself; he is more than likely overwhelmed. Having the ability to retreat shows his maturity, and we encourage such behavior. Please support him and us.”

6. Reminders. Advanced notice can prevent tears and tantrums. We are going to be leaving in a half hour.” Then, give 10-minute reminders, which can make an easier transition for the children. My oldest son had a habit of breaking snow globes when he was little. We thought he was misbehaving for attention, but years later he explained he was so fascinated by the lovely globe and he wanted to try to “climb inside.” While we do ask friends and family to be aware of his fascination and requested such objects be moved during our visit, we also remind E to be gentle should a globe be left out. “Hey, remember that cool snow globe Mama Cathy had? It was fragile and broke. If you see one, try to observe it with your eyes and ask if it is OK to touch before doing so.”

7. Review. Helping your child with perspective of the event can build confidence and may provide a positive anticipation for next time: “I had so much fun, how about you? I noticed how well you were reading to your cousin; he really appreciated that and I am proud of you for helping.”

8. Just say, “No.” It is OK. If you are overwhelmed, your child is anxious or it feels like it is all too much, it may be time to leave. Take a deep breath, grab your coziest cow slippers, a bottle of wine and your partner, and exhale. You should give yourself permission to enjoy the holidays in your own unique way, and at your speed. Deflect the pressure from what others think; rather, make the time meaningful for you, your child and your family unit.

9. December holidays’ true meaning is not gifts. Really, look it up. It might be hard for many people to believe, but I’ve observed that gift-receiving can be stressful for some children on the autism spectrum and some children with SPD. A nice “gift” for those inclined to give them can be one-on-one time with the child doing something they really enjoy. My son loves movies; he loves to go with his aunts and uncles or grandparents. Knowing he has a movie date is often all he needs to feel the joy of gift-receiving.

10. Not everything went as you hoped or planned? Don’t worry; I have it on good authority the holidays will come again next year!

What did I leave out? Tell me your tips for surviving the holidays with your special needs family. I would love to hear from you.

Images via Contributor.

A version of this post originally appeared on Grande Parenting Solutions.

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Originally published: November 23, 2016
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