5 Ways to Make the Holidays Happier for Children with Special Needs

Ellen Seidman
June 21, 2017

Get advice for helping a special needs child through this chaotic time of year.

As parents, you want to make the holidays as jolly as possible for your kids. Keeping children with special needs merry, though, can be challenging. The hubbub of family celebrations and parties can overwhelm those with sensory issues; others might find the break in routine unsettling (and meltdown-inducing). It's also not very joyous for a kid with delays to open up a present that doesn't fit his developmental stage.

Happily, there are plenty of strategies that can help kids with special needs have just as much fun as any kid. Parenting bloggers share the tactics that have enabled their kids to have truly happy holidays -- and peace, too!

  1. Help Kids Prepare
    "My autistic son thrives on routine and feeling informed, which makes the chaos of the holidays hard for him," says Shannon Des Roches Rosa, mom to Leo, 12, and blogger at Squidalicious.

    "A visual schedule helps him understand why and how his routine will change, allows him to focus on the fun to come and lowers his anxiety over being in a different place with different people."

    She uses apps like ChoiceWorks and Routinely to create visual schedules, and makes paper ones, too. "We include pictures of the people we'll be seeing," explains Rosa. "We'll also use icons of Christmas trees, presents, and turkey dinner. Then Leo can relax and get into the holiday spirit!"

    Read our article on the 22 Best Mobile Apps for Kids with Special Needs

  2. Share a Gift Wish List
    "The truth is, it can be difficult to pick the right gift for any kid. Add in special needs and things get even more difficult," says Katy Monnot, mom to Charlie, a five-year-old with cerebral palsy, who blogs at Bird on the Street.

    "I email each set of grandparents a list of suggested gifts. I'll include a tried-and-true one -- something Charlie's seen before and loves or something similar, plus a book because kids needs books, and a gift that addresses one of the goals he's working on."

    When one of Charlie's therapists set a goal for him to use both hands during play (since he tends to favor one hand), Monnot requested a box of instruments with a tambourine and cymbals to encourage the use two hands. "This works out great for everyone," she notes. "The grandparents know that at least one of their gifts will make his eyes light up, and I know that at least one of their gifts will encourage him to try new things. It's a win-win."

  3. Hire a (Sitter) Elf to Help
    "A couple of years ago, when our family was invited to a Hannukah party, the first thing we did was book a babysitter to take along with us," says Jana Banin, mom to 6-year-old Zack, who has autism. "We knew the noise and crowded space would be too much for Zack -- and we wanted to make sure he had a good time and we did, too."

    Banin, who blogs at I Hate Your Kids (And Other Things Autism Parents Won't Say Out Loud), knew her ploy would help: "The sitter could play with him, make sure he didn't grab a cookie from someone else's plate and make sure he didn't wander out onto the street. The evening was a success! Zack and [the babysitter] checked out all the different food, snacked, curled up on the couch as he played his iPad. Since then, we bring our sitter with us to parties."

    Look into hiring a special needs sitter for your child this holiday season.

  4. Teach Other Kids about Your Kids
    To help other children understand her daughters Evangeline and Polly, who are both 6 and have Down syndrome, Gillian Marchenko sends out an educational e-mail before the holidays to families they plan on visiting. It includes pointers such as:

    • Your friend might need more time to answer questions or finish an activity.
    • Some kids with special needs can be focused on one topic; even though it can get annoying, it makes him feel special when you listen and appreciate the things he loves.
    • Kids with special needs are often made fun of or bullied. Be brave and defend your friend.

    As Marchenko says, "Friends and family are grateful for the advice."

    Need tips for talking to a child about special needs? Check out our article on Teaching Your Child about Peers with Special Needs

  5. Let Go of Your Expectations
    "My son Gavin has cerebral palsy and when he turned two, I wrapped every present and couldn't wait for him to open them on Christmas morning," says Kate Gallagher Leong of Chasing Rainbows.

    "It was one of the worst mornings of his little life. He has issues with fine-motor skills, and forcing him to use his hands to rip open the paper was more like therapy than Christmas. That's when I realized I shouldn't project my Norman Rockwell Christmas onto my child. The following year, every toy was out of its box and ready to play with, making a bright and inviting display under the tree. The look on Gavin's face as he moved from one toy to the other made it the best morning of all our lives!"

Ellen Seidman is a magazine editor and the writer behind Love That Max, a blog about kids with special needs who kick butt.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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