Celebrating the holiday season can feel hectic and overwhelming for everyone in the family. Even families with typically developing children may feel a little overwhelmed and crazed by the end of the holiday season. Families with a special needs child will need to put in a little extra planning during the holiday season. That why I created this guide for how to successfully navigate the holidays. With some thoughtful planning and a little experience, you and your child can sail through the holiday season with ease.
Family Gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas:
Let’s start with family gatherings. We personally have a very
Speak to Your Host
Speak with your host ahead of time. Let them know what you and your child may need to make your child as comfortable as possible. I’m not saying to be a tyrant and tell the host how to throw Thanksgiving. I’m just saying, speak ahead of time and make sure you are managing everyone’s expectations for the day.
Make sure your host knows your child’s capabilities. If your child isn’t going to sit through a 2-hour, 6-course meal, make sure everyone is fully aware of that. If your child needs an iPad in order to sit through dinner, warn them ahead of time.
Pick Your Times
If you know your child isn’t capable of spending an entire day celebrating at someone else’s home, pick the hours that are the most important to attend. Be there for the actual meal and help clean up, and then make a graceful exit if needed.
Managing everyone’s expectations is the name of the game here.
If your child has allergies and dietary restrictions, offer to bring a few dishes to contribute to the meal that your child can and will eat. Our son is a very picky eater with a LOT of dietary restrictions, so we opt to just bring him his own meal. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. If your host asks what your child can eat and wants to make a dish for them, be honest about what they can eat and send over a recipe if needed.
Have a Designated Space
Agree on a quiet space either outside or inside the home that you and your child can go to if they need a moment to unwind. Holiday gatherings can get crowded and loud in a hurry. And if your child has a space they can go to that lets them be calm and quiet for a few minutes here and there, that’s ideal.
Is it better for you to host?
Would it be easier for your child if you hosted the gathering? Hosting is SO much work. But it allows you to be home in your child’s home environment with their toys and familiar things. If that’s what you need, feel free to speak up and say how it would best work for your little family and child. And, if that can’t be agreed upon by the entire extended family, make your own smaller celebration. No big deal!
Bring Comfort Items
If you have a favorite toy or blanket, bring those along for the day. A little security of a beloved item never hurts. Plus, toys and games will help occupy your child and help them pass the day.
When to Bow Out
If you just can’t come to an agreement or you feel like your day is heading for a disaster, know when to fold your cards and bow out. Sometimes it may just be best to have a small day at home rather than dragging your family through a day that will be a huge challenge. And if you see your child melting down, calmly gather your things and leave. It’s totally understandable and not a problem.
My mom and aunt are the ones to host the holidays in our family here in town. And if I told them that our sons would be comfier if we put the table on the ceiling and everyone ate upside down while barking like dogs, you better believe that is exactly what they would do. (Because they are the absolute best!) And most other families would too. You just have to ask and make your needs known.
If you think you might need to travel for the holidays, make your accommodation choices based on what will be best for your child and you. If we are going to be traveling, it’s honestly easier to stay at a hotel. It gives our son space and quiet to be able to relax and play. I love to find a hotel with an indoor pool to let the kids swim. It’s a fantastic way to let them burn some energy AND regulate their little sensory systems!
Long car rides can be hard with a special needs child. It’s absolutely manageable, but you have to be smart about it and plan well ahead.
For a full guide on how to travel with small kids, read this post about long car trips with toddlers.
I honestly haven’t flown with my kids yet. They are still small, age 6 and 4. Flying just isn’t an option for us at this point in life. It would stress me out to be that far from home and not be able to get home if needed.
Now that I’ve made air travel sound so glorious… here’s an article with suggestions from families that have flown with their special needs kids.
If your special needs child is into Santa, chances are there will be a sensory-friendly opportunity somewhere in your city. Our mall Santa has designated hours before the mall is open where the music is much quieter (or no music at all), there is less lighting and less visual stimulation. And lots fewer people! Also, Santa is specially trained to know how to better relate and handle children with special needs.
And once you find Santa, don’t insist on sitting on his lap or giving a hug. Maybe your child wants to give Santa a hug. Maybe he doesn’t! A high 5 to Santa will work just as well and keep you right on top of the nice list. You want your child to have a successful experience and like Santa. Let your child be your guide.
If it’s really important to you and/or your child to see Santa and the sensory-friendly opportunity just isn’t presenting itself, hire a Santa to come to your home. You could invite a few other special needs families over and let the kids have a Santa experience right in their own living room!
Gifts can be overwhelming for special needs kids. Here are a few ideas I have implemented that worked for us.
Easy to Open Gifts
Make your gifts easy to open. If your child isn’t going to rip the paper off the gift, try gift bags. And I like to go ahead and have the toy put together, with batteries and ready to play with as well. That way if my son opens a present that gets his interest and attention, we are ready to roll with playing when he pulls it out of the bag.
Steady As You Go
If your child is easily overwhelmed by a lot of gifts, give a few each day for several days. We like to do that at our house. We practice opening gifts and saying thank you for presents for several days at our house before Christmas.
And then on Christmas, if there are just too many presents for your child to get through, make sure to thank the people that gave the gifts and simply explain that you’ll open the rest in a day or two when your child is ready for more presents. If you think there is a family member that would be offended by that, start with their gifts first, so there’s no issue.
With the holidays, come the crowds. Stores and restaurants are logistically a lot more crowded during the holiday season. And that’s definitely something to keep in mind when you are out and about with your special needs child.
I try to do any errand running I need to do in less busy times if I can’t simply run the errands while the kids are at school. If they need to go with me and if it’s a busy time of day, I simply put them in the buggy or stroller. If I only need a few items in a store, I use our double stroller and let the kids ride through the store and then I let them use iPads if needed while in the stroller. The iPad is a great distraction from noticing all the sensory overload happening in front of them!
School Parties and Group Activities
If you feel like the school parties or planned group activities of the holiday season will be too much for your child, feel free to say no to those activities. Get them out of school early if the class party is too much for them. If there is a party or activity planned with friends that’s just too much for your child, simply politely say no and don’t go.
Parades and Events
We just don’t go to parades and massive outdoor events. It’s just TOO much for the kids. Plus, it’s flipping freezing outside for a nighttime Christmas parade. I also don’t enjoy the colds my kids will have for weeks to come after the blessed event.
Instead, we do a nighttime car ride and go look at all the Christmas lights around the area we live in. We can drive around the neighborhood or sometimes we go around the community. You can have hot cocoa, Christmas carols, be sitting down, AND have the programmable heat of the car WHILE enjoying the sights. Where is the downside in all of that?!
Managing crowds doesn’t have to be complicated. You just need a few creative solutions. And those solutions might turn out to be better than the original activity! Who knows!
Helpful Items for Holiday Gatherings:
Here are a few of our favorite sensory-friendly items we take with us to holiday gatherings. These just give my kids something to focus their attention and energy on and I find them helpful:
- Chewable Coil Jewelry Bracelet
- Chewable Necklaces
- Liquid Motion Bubbler
- Light Up Spinning Wand
- Sequin Pets
- Stretch and Squeeze Balls
Manage Your Own Expectations
I think this part might actually be the trickiest part of holiday celebrations with a special needs child. Managing your own expectations and keeping things realistic is hugely important for you, the parent.
Because it takes some time to accept that the holidays will be different for you and your family. The special days might look different than you had imagined they would be when you first had children. That doesn’t mean the holidays are bad or that you shouldn’t celebrate. They are simply different.
And sometimes that can be really sad. And if you need a minute to mourn and process those feelings, I think that’s totally normal and practical. But don’t let that sadness swallow you up and take your holiday joy. Take a minute, acknowledge your feelings and then move on with your day and celebrate with your little family.
Make Sure YOU Celebrate
If there is a particular Christmas tradition you love, that doesn’t fit into your child’s abilities, arrange for a sitter for your child and still go to that celebration. Even better, arrange for a nice date night out with no kids at all and go take in the holiday season! It’s ok to still go and have some fun for yourself too.
Wrap Up – How to Successfully Navigate The Holidays
Without a doubt, you know your child best. You know what may trigger them into sensory overload and how they might react to most situations. And with that in mind, you can custom design your holiday season for what fits best for your child and your family. Go with your mommy-gut and keep your expectations grounded. Plan your holidays as best fits the needs of your family. The most important thing is to be together and love each other this holiday season!
- To The Special Needs Mom In The Therapy Waiting Room
- My Friend Is A Special Needs Mom
- Top Toy Picks For Your Special Needs Child