How to Handle the Holidays With Your Special Needs Child (10 Tips!)
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
I'm not only a tutor and behavioral therapist/analyst (BCBA) of special needs individuals, but first and foremost I'm a MOM to my own son with autism, ADD and ODD--so I know firsthand just how hard the holidays can be with an individual with special needs. My son started out not being able to walk, talk, chew, look at us, understand language nor have conversations until he was 5yrs old, and then he had echolalia for two straight years. He did not like loud noises, bright lights, and changes of any sort, and my life was filled with daily meltdowns--including and especially during the holiday season, when everything changes: routines, how the school and home looks due to putting up decorations--even getting new toys/presents was difficult for my son. The year he was 4yrs old, I remember I got him to open up one present for Christmas--a truck--and he immediately put it on the floor, rolled it, and laid down to watch the wheels (did I mention that he didn't have "appropriate play" either?). Then, since he did not understand Christmas, he also did not understand "needing to open up" the rest of the presents--it took me an entire week to get him to complete opening up all the presents! I also could not decorate my home more than just the Christmas tree and a wreath outside, for many years. When we moved into a larger home with a beautiful banister, I wanted to drape a garland on that banister but NOPE--he cried and screamed and tried to tear the whole thing down. I always loved decorating and loved the holidays, and I had to become a minimalist instead until my son was older and could tolerate more change!
So, in other words--I "get" what you might be going through with your special needs child during the holidays. Do you dread the holiday season instead of welcoming it in, not knowing how your child will react each year as the holidays approach? Here are some helpful tips that might make your holiday season a little bit easier (and maybe even enjoyable):
1. ROUTINES, ROUTINES, ROUTINES (KEEP THEM GOING!)
As much as you possibly can, keep current routines in place for your special needs child! My son didn't even like if I took a different route home from school, never mind if there wasn't school that day! Days off from school were difficult but I was able to keep a lot of his therapies going even during weeks off from school, which helped us stay on some sort of normal schedule/routine. As much as possible KEEP things in the schedule/routine to minimize the changes the holiday season brings. If you can post up a picture schedule of the day each day or if your child reads, a list of what is happening when, and showing him/her what will stay the same and not change from his/her schedule/routine--this will greatly improve your quality of life with your special needs child
2. TO DECORATE OR NOT TO DECORATE???
Yes, that IS the question you need to ask yourself--can your special needs child handle the change of decorations going up (and don't forget--when they come down/get put away as well). If not, then go as minimalist as you can inside your home. Remember that there will be "different looking things" everywhere, as the schools get decorated and the malls and stores and possibly even the center for gym or OT or Speech where your child goes for sessions. However, keeping things SIMPLE is your key ingredient to helping your child deal with changes--if the home environment doesn't change that much, then it might become the "safe place where nothing really changes" over the holiday season for your special needs child, and thus cut down on the anxiety overload that leads to tantrums in many of our kids.
3. PRE-WARN YOUR CHILD OF CHANGES HE'LL SEE ELSEWHERE
OK so you've kept your home simply decorated and as unchanged as possible--and then you're going over to Grandma's where she's decked the halls both inside and out! PRE-WARN your child that he/she will encounter changes in the environments he/she is used to seeing a certain way. Try to find out in advance what is changing/what will be different in order to prepare your child. I still remember one Mother's Day celebration at my son's special needs school right after he had just turned 4 when they had all us mothers come to school--he didn't even have much language yet but he was able to let me know, the decorations on the radiator had to come off (he tried to pull them off), that there were supposed to be "backpacks on table" at the end of the day, and then they changed what door we were going to be released from--so you probably can guess what happened. It took twenty minutes of a crying screaming tantrum on the floor before I could get him out the "new door." We weren't alone--another poor mom like myself was trying to get her child with autism out the "different" door and of course, no, we were not allowed to use the other door as it had been locked! I found that when I was able to PRE-WARN my son, with either a social story or list, or when he could understand language, just by verbally telling him what would be different--life went a lot better for all of us!
I've already mentioned above how it took an entire week for my son to open up Christmas presents, as he just didn't see the need (he didn't understand Christmas) and I had to persuade him every day to try to open a new one! If a pile of presents is too overwhelming, maybe just do one present each day--there are, after all, 12 days of Christmas, and I guess Hanukkah would have been a better holiday for my son as there is one present given each of 8 crazy nights! I know how hard it is to be a mom and want your child to typically understand and "do" Christmas, but you can still make it a happy experience for the both of you, by just working around your child's needs and presenting it in a way he/she would enjoy as well. This is where we really need to get creative sometimes!
5. FIND OUT WHAT YOUR CHILD DOES LIKE ABOUT THE HOLIDAYS--AND BUILD FROM THERE
As the saying goes, "if you've met one child with autism--you've met ONE child with autism." Meaning--while my son could not go to a holiday event filled with people or to the Meet Santa event at the mall and take pictures--I have friends whose children have autism and they can go to Disneyland for an entire day to celebrate the holiday season (I still can't understand that one! We had to take my son screaming out from the back of Tom Sawyer Island in SoCAL's Disneyland--yes, you can only get off by going on the ferry and he screamed that entire ride as well--because he would not stop perseverating on turning the turnstile that lifts the skeleton in the back and would not give any other children a turn! Needless to say, it was the last meltdown we could deal with over our three days trying to have a typical fun time at Disney (and failing miserably at it) and we went home, never to return!). However, my son DID like being in the car and going for a drive at night to see the Christmas lights on the houses and one year, a drive through lights display set up by the electric company. He also liked anything having to do with trains, so Travel Town (a train place in southern CA) was a great place to visit as it was scarcely decorated and I even got him to stand with Santa with his cousins for a picture one glorious holiday outing there! FIND WHAT DOES WORK for your child, and capitalize on it/build experiences around it!
6. DON'T FORCE ANYTHING!
You probably already know this one, but don't force your kid to do anything during the holiday season! Don't force him to do the holiday craft at school if he/she doesn't want to, don't force him/her to take pics with Santa if this causes anxiety, and most of all, don't allow others who don't live with your child and don't really know about autism or your child's special needs like you do, tell you what to do this holiday season! You know your child best--stick with your gut on what will work, what you can try with your child, and what you know you cannot. This is hard, I know, when well-meaning family "think" they know all about your child's special needs. I had to endure many meltdowns with family during the holidays because "they knew best" and tried to force my son to sit on the Santa's lap, or eat something he didn't want--don't let this happen to you! Do what you know is right and what works for your child and your personal family situation, even if you feel misunderstood and not supported. Just remember--there's an entire community of other special needs families who would support you and do understand!
7. SOCIAL STORIES
To prepare your child for the routines of the holiday and try to get him/her acclimated to being able to handle the changes, a social story might help. A social story is simply a story you put together specifically about what will take place on the special day. For example, on Halloween I wanted my child to learn to trick or treat and so I made a social story about "what to do" for trick or treating. I described on each page the next "to do" thing, such as "we go to the door and knock" with a picture of a child dressed up knocking on a door holding a trick or treat bin. "The door opens, and we say 'trick or treat!" with a picture of a child saying trick or treat with people standing in the doorway. "Then the people put candy and other treats in our trick or treat bin" and I had a picture of that happening on that page. I read the story to my son over and over, several days before I had him go trick or treating with another child who was typical and acted as the "model" or "example" of what to do/who to imitate. My son picked up what to do so well, he was very "scripted" even down to the "thank you very much" I had put into the story--but no one knew and everyone was delighted that my son actually said "thank you" when other children ran away after getting their treats! You could try writing such a social story about what to expect when going to see Santa, or what to expect when going to a relative's house for the holidays. A social story helps a child know what to expect and how to act when different things happen and can be very helpful for preventing the anxiety which can cause meltdowns and other behavioral issues during a "different kind of day" during any holiday season. Also, a picture album of family your child might see that he/she otherwise never sees, would be a type of "social story" you can show and tell to your child as well.
8. SCHEDULE SCHEDULE SCHEDULE!
Have a schedule posted (picture, or written schedule, if your child can read) of each day for the holiday season, particularly for breaks from school but even on days school is in session. You can let your child know ahead of time if there is a special assembly for the holidays at school that week, or if sessions with a therapist will be canceled, by posting a schedule for him/her to refer to each week. Just make sure you write the schedule loosely, if your child is a bit rigid about sticking to what is written on a schedule. For example, write "Morning = breakfast" instead of "8am breakfast" if you want the ability to sleep in or wake up anytime you want instead of sticking to specific times which you know your child might hold you to! When I homeschooled my son, most days we had a schedule that stuck strictly to times, but some days when I wasn't sure when we would get back from a field trip or when another mom would meet us, I would write it loosely on the schedule, such as "after field trip, Math Time" so that could mean, anytime we arrived home.
9. BE REALISTIC
Keep your expectations realistic and don't put them up too high. I know this sounds a bit pessimistic, but you have to know your situation and what might happen if you try something new and it doesn't go as planned. My hopes were dashed many times due to expecting too much from my son, and I myself ended up being the one crying in the corner! Be realistic--you know your child better than anyone else, and what you can expect of him/her in most situations. If he/she finds crowds overwhelming, doesn't like loud music or Christmas decorations, then don't take him/her to the mall to see Santa! Instead, try to find a sensory friendly or special needs Santa situation where maybe everything is toned down a bit, quieter and there are people who work with special needs who are able to help you both have a special and rewarding experience (such situations do exist out there--google and find them through your local organizations serving special needs in your community).
10. TREAT YOURSELF TO A HOLIDAY TIME OUT OR SOMETHING SPECIAL JUST FOR YOU
Last tip--please please please do not forget to take care of yourself this holiday season! Remember the old adage which is to "put on the oxygen mask before you take care of the individual next to you" (on plane flights, and it also applies to moms of special needs!). Carve out some special time just for yourself, maybe with a friend or even by yourself--to have a treat or experience YOU will enjoy! It's been a long year with your special needs child--you deserve a nice holiday season time as well--you've earned it! Maybe if your child cannot go to a tree lighting or to the mall but you love those experiences, go with a friend to have a shopping time out or to watch that tree lighting while someone stays home with your child. Maybe get yourself a special present you've been eyeing to pamper yourself (like a foot spa and pedicure kit with new nail polish colors for the season) or supplies to start a hobby you want to do such as scrapbooking or knitting or crocheting or even reading a book listed with a book club (there are online meetups for books clubs and craft/knitting groups now which make it easier for moms of special needs to meet with others even if they can't get someone to watch their kids to leave their house!), or a special kitchen appliance or gadget if you love baking and cooking for the holidays. Get creative with ways to treat YOURSELF well! It's twice as much work to be the mom of a special needs child, so don't just make the holidays work for your child and everyone else--reward yourself for getting through the year with a special gift or time out occasion just for you! Treat Yourself! You deserve it--you're worth it!
And if you are looking for professional behavioral help during this season, wanting either parent training or help with how to prepare your child for the changes to come, I now offer behavioral help in the form of parent training, behavioral therapy, and even social skills help-- so contact me for a FREE 1hr CONSULTATION if you're interested in such support. If you're looking for tutoring help to catch your child up academically, I also offer those services as well, as I've been a tutor of special needs individuals from preK up through adulthood for 25yrs--contact me here to have a FREE 1hr CONSULTATION . Check out my website for more information about me (Special Needs Tutor Paula, Behavior Analyst) and everything I can offer to help you with your special needs child: TutorPaulaBCBA.com