10 Holiday Tips for Special Needs Families

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The holiday season can be overwhelming for kids with Autism and other sensory challenges.  From different foods on the table, to lights and singing and dressing up for pictures – it can mean sensory overload!

Social Story about Christmas can help to prepare

We no longer attend all of the events scheduled.  We purposely host smaller, quieter events at our house, or if going out, we stay away from very busy places.  Oftentimes, we shop or go places at off-hours.  Each year I take a random December Tuesday off from work, pull my kids from school early to go see Santa when there are no crowds.

For parents with newly diagnosed kiddos (or anyone who needs to hear this): Modifying the crazy holiday schedule isn’t the end of the world!  You will learn through trial and error what your child can tolerate – and when you find your groove, things do fall into place.

I’ve had to get comfortable with saying NO.  Comfortable in a way that doesn’t make me second guess myself or playing defense with family and friends.  I won’t say it’s always been easy, but you can do it, especially when you know in your heart of hearts it is what’s in the best interest of your family.

Here are 10 tips to help manage the holiday season as a special needs family

10. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Transitions and changes of schedule can be hard on our kids, so the more we can prepare them, the smoother the transition will be. Using a picture album to show pictures of holiday time and family members celebrating can be helpful.

Social stories are another a great way for kids to learn more about the holiday season. 

Get TIL’s What to Expect at Christmas social story here

Using a calendar or countdown method can also be helpful.  For example, a paper chain with 25 rings can be a fun activity, or advent calendar – both will help countdown the days until Christmas. Or, get TIL’s free Countdown to Christmas Santa activity.

Printable Countdown to Christmas Activity

9. Discuss decorations

Some decorations can be disruptive to our kiddos with sensory issues.  Blinking lights and decorations that play music can be tough for those who have sensitivity to light and sound. 

My kiddo always liked the Christmas tree – so much so that we used a play yard around our tree when she was small.  It helped her to learn boundarie, keep safe (and saved our tree).  We also gave up glass ornaments for the plastic kind.  We use the plastic ones to this day, because both of my kids look forward to putting up the tree.  (And, I don’t worry about cleaning up glass chards!)

For kids that have difficulty with change, choose the decorations that you’ll put up.  Write it down on the calendar or create a picture schedule to help include and prepare your child.  This strategy goes back to #1 – prepare, prepare, prepare!

8. Designate a Space

Talk with your child about the noise and overload that holidays may bring.  People coming over to the house. People laughing, singing or holiday music playing.  Blinking lights.  Together, agree upon a quiet spot for your child, where (s)he can go to get away from it all.  Practice using the space. 

Perhaps there is a signal you can give your child to indicate it’s time to go to the space.  Or, if your child is more self-directed, give them permission to go to that space, no matter what is happening.  Yes, even if your Aunt Edna insists on poking and prodding the group into a perfect family picture.

7. Identify Triggers

There are certain things my kiddo hates.  Posed pictures are at the top of the list (selfies are A-OK in her opinion, however), getting her hair done and wearing uncomfortable clothes are next on her list.  Pick your battles. 

At our house, we’ve turned New Year’s Eve into a PJ party tradition.  A few extended family members come over, and YES, we all wear PJs and see who will be able to stay awake until midnight.  This minor tweak allows everyone to have a good time.  (And, I mean, come on – who doesn’t love being in pajamas?)

6. Prepare EVeryone ELse

Yes, we talked about preparing your child, but don’t forget to prep family and friends you’ll be celebrating with.  Having a conversation ahead of time can help to avoid uncomfortable situations.  Does your kid hate hugs?  Will only eat chicken nuggets?  Might get up and leave the dinner table for needed quiet time?  The more you can help your family and friends understand, the less chance of a misunderstanding (and subsequent meltdown) will happen.

5. Prepare YOU

Notice the theme here?  Think about what you’ll say when a family member gives well-meaning but unsolicited advice. This can be maddening, I know.  I like to say things like:  Thanks, I’ll have to look into that.  Or, (sometimes with a not-so-subtle tone of sarcasm) Wow! I had not thought of that.  And, my personal favorite:  Oh, thanks for letting me know.  Would you send me the article?  In what publication did you find that?  Always while wearing a smile.

4. Talk about gift exchange (and other norms)

This is another area where hands-on-practice or a social story can help. Taking turns opening gifts, waiting until an adult tells you it’s time to open gifts, and only opening gifts with your name on it are some areas to cover. If your family chooses to go to church or practice a particular ritual, this would be good to practice too.

3. Special Diets

My daughter follows a gluten and dairy free diet.  When we go someplace, I call the host ahead of time to ask what will be served, so I can bring appropriate substitutes.  If cake will be served, I bring a gluten and dairy free cupcake (that I’ve frozen ahead of time).  I also ask the host if there is anyone else coming who is gluten and/or dairy free – and if so, I’ll offer to bring an alternate dessert. Get our favorite holiday gluten and dairy free recipes here!

2. Have a distraction strategy

Maybe your kiddo is convinced that they must have a new Play Station and it is ALL (s)he talks about.  In that case, try to limit discussion (i.e., Here are 3 chips.  You can talk about the Play Station 3 times today.  Each time you talk about it, I will take one of your chips).  If it’s not your intention to gift your child the item they are perseverating about, don’t tell them that maybe they will receive the gift.

I like to also have a distraction strategy when we travel to someone else’s house, or when we have people at ours.  It usually includes a few things my kiddo likes to do – maybe a game or a small toy she enjoys.  When she needs redirection, I can say, “Hey, let’s play a game of _____” and usually that works. Having the iPad and headphones to watch a video is also a great distraction.

1. Enjoy the Season

We get such a short amount of time on this Earth, my friends.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned (and the hard way, at that) is to simplify.  Holidays don’t have to be complicated and stressful. 

Christmas Social Story
Countdown to Christmas Activity
Favorite Gluten and Dairy Free Holiday Baking Guide

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