7 Special Needs Kid Friendly Tips To A Smoother Holiday (or any event really)!

The Holidays……

Strange people.

Strange schedules.

Strange foods.

Lots of music and noise.

Is there any wonder that this time of year can be challenging for kids with Autism and other special needs? Let’s be honest, all the “holiday-ness” of the holidays can get to be a little too much for us too. Whether it’s the holidays or any new, unusual, different event it’s easy to see the occasion as being more like one of those Spartan mud races than the Norman Rockwellesque scene you’ve dreamed in your head….

So many of the things we celebrate with the holiday, so many of the things that make that day stand out from the rest of the year can be the exact same things that make it so impossible for our kids.

So is there no hope? Are we doomed? Is it a lost cause?

Of course not. Here’s 7 (ish) things I’ve learned over the years that have made the holidays (and ANY new event) not only endurable but sometimes actually even ….. fun.

  1. Practice & Review (if possible)
    • Rehearse and role play scenarios if you can –
      • Example: Intro’s to people you know will be there; review of foods that they’ll be able to eat, smell etc.; activities taking place
    • Review the schedule for the day, if possible make a simple picture or printed schedule, so they know what to expect from the day. Once you have it, review it and let them have a copy of it (paper or electronic) so they can have some sense of “control” over the day while still explaining that sometimes things don’t go according to schedule (hint: don’t make it TOO specific, it’s just a guide not an itinerary)
    • Build the excitement (versus the fear) for the event by talking about how much FUN it’s going to be and how much you LOVE ______ (the pretty tree, Grandma’s special dessert, seeing Uncle Harry again).  If there’s going to be strong emotions and anticipation the best thing you can do is try to make the build up about the FUN, EXCITING & COOL …. trust me, it will help combat the negativity and fear that will creep into their heads.
  2. It’s a Sensory world – so key in with all of your senses. The holidays (and any new experience/place) is rife with sensory “rich” experiences. For kids with challenges handling sensory overload though that sensory richness can be overwhelming. So, if your child is acting unusually agitated or difficult, take a minute to do a sensory check (sights, sounds, smells, touch, etc.) and see if you can find a sensory trigger. Sometimes that agitation might have less to do with the place and more to do with that new too tight/too scratchy holiday “outfit”.
  3. Idle hands ……
    • Bring fidgets or small toys they can play with and manipulate. Something small that they can have in a pocket and keep with them throughout the day or the event. Having something they’re familiar with can help ease their anxiety and keep them calm(er).
  4. Give ‘Em A Break
    • Make sure (if possible) there’s a space that’s quiet and somewhat calm that they can go to if they need a break. A spare bedroom or tv room is great for this. If there’s not this kind of space – make one – step outside, take a walk or even jump in the car for a quick drive or “quiet break”.
    • Cut them some slack. Asking them to be on their best behavior the whole time holding everything in never works and it’s not fair. From time to time let them go outside or to their quiet space mentioned above and just let loose! Dance, sing, stim just get all of that pent up energy and anxiety out.
    • Bring a toy or activity that they like and can play with if they need to separate a little bit. Ipads, phones and mini-DVD players are great for this (don’t forget the chargers!). These can also be used as rewards – ie: ‘If you can sit at the table with Mom for 15 minutes, you can get “x” minutes with your Ipad!”
    • Remember, they’re kids and kids are suppose to get in trouble from time to time. The most “normal” thing in the world is for kids to do dopey, immature, inappropriate things …. it’s why we call them “kids” instead of “adults” (and let’s be honest, adults do plenty of dumb things when they get together too).
    • Get a little physical. Sometimes the best way to give them a break is to give them a physical task to do – 10 jumping jacks, 5 quick sprints down the hall/around the car/to the tree and back, 5 push ups just something that gets them moving. That little explosion of activity will let them burn some energy, give them something different to focus on and break the tension and stress. Plus it can be fun (heck, do it with them… you might be surprised how much better YOU feel!)
  5. Stay mindful….and stay off Facebook and social media.
    • First, you want to stay mindfully connected with your child in the moment and that’s hard to do with a screen between you.
    • Second, it’s too easy (around the holidays especially) to compare your life to everyone else’s “perfect” lives. Then, in that comparison your life can easily seem “less” than. Social media promotes that idea with a vengeance because nobody posts the “reality” of their lives….just the happy, cheery, “perfect” moments (we only see the lovely cherubs smiling around the table …. never the potatoes in the hair or the water glass that gets dumped into Aunt Mary’s lap).  So catch up with your friends after the holidays (Facebook and all of it’s posts will be there later) but when you’re in the moment, enjoy your child and the moment for what it is without feeling the tug of comparing it to what other families are doing.
  6. Relax and enjoy
    • Don’t feel embarrassed or the need to “hide” your child. Yes, they’re unique. Yes they might have unusual behaviors or tendencies from time to time. But whether with family or in public they’re still a part of the event and they have as much a right to be there as anyone else. If it’s family and friends they should be understanding. If in public, more people are understanding than you’d expect, and if they aren’t…..that’s their problem not your child’s.
    • Fake it if you have to! Your child will pick up on your anxiety and stress level as an indicator of whether they should be more nervous or anxious. So if you’re not relaxed, fake it (don’t worry most of us are faking being relaxed too…..it’s the holidays!). More importantly though, you can’t enjoy these moments in your child’s life if you’re always trying to police them and shield them. Sometimes you HAVE to let them go and just enjoy the moments.
  7. When it’s time to go ….. go, without apologies
    • If you need to leave an event early do so without apology. Sometimes your child has simply hit their limit and it’s time to call it a day. It’s a balancing act because you want to make sure they’re pushing those limits but like the rest of us, when that limit is reached there’s no reason to not simply respect it.

Your Child is unique and their challenges are unique so the way they experience the holidays/life will be unique and different too. As their parents that means the way WE experience  life/holiday/events will be unique and different than many of our friends and family and sometimes that just …..well, to be blunt it sucks.

BUT never forget, that sometimes that “different” allows us to see, experience and appreciate things everybody else misses.  Sometimes it’s being able (or forced) to see life from a different perspective that allows us to see the real beauty and the truly special things that life, and the holidays, have to offer.

Happy Holidays From All Of Us At Centria!

– Steve Bockmann



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