Holiday Survival Tips for Children with Special Needs

The very things that make the holidays exciting and fun for many kids can feel stressful and overwhelming to children with autism or other types of learning challenges. Routines are disrupted, noise levels are heightened, and more people are coming and going, so picture-perfect holiday memories often become messy meltdowns.

Here are some holiday survival tips that might help when the season doesn’t seem so jolly to your child.



Plan ahead

A little preparation and planning with your child will give them a chance to understand what all this commotion is about. For example, you can use pictures of activities to show your child what will be happening—show people opening presents, singing carols, or decorating, and talk about what is planned. Pack a bag, with your child’s help, that includes soothing toys, headphones, or their favorite weighted blanket. Let them know that this bag will always be available. And, don’t forget to give relatives a heads-up about your child’s particular needs and let your family help make the environment less stressful. You can give them a list of things they can do to be supportive. It may also help to arrive at gatherings early (when fewer people are there) and leave early (before the volume skyrockets).

Bring familiar food

Children, especially on the autism spectrum, tend to be extremely selective in the food that they will eat. It’s a good idea to bring some of your child’s favorite foods with you when visiting friends or family. The recognizable routine (eating what they usually eat) will ease some of the other transitional problems (Eating away from home) they may be experiencing. If you tell the host about their special food needs ahead of time you can avoid offending the cook.

Manage the gift chaos

Unwrapping presents can be noisy, chaotic, and challenging for some children with special needs. Try using soft, reusable bags to wrap gifts which are easier to open and less noisy and messy. Or, you could make sure your child’s gifts are easy to open so they can have the sense of accomplishment of opening without unnecessary frustration. You could also plan a place away from others for your child to open gifts so they won’t feel overwhelmed and rushed by the group’s excitement. You can also wrap one of your child’s favorite toys so they open something familiar and comforting that you know they like.

Wait to put wrapped gifts out 

One other small tip is to wait until Christmas eve night to place any gifts under the tree. Children on the autism spectrum and those with other learning challenges can have difficulty with delayed gratification. Waiting to put gifts out can prevent a major case of sensory overload.

Schedule alone time with your child

The busyness of the season can mess up your schedule during the holidays, so it might be helpful to schedule time every day to just get away or do one of your child’s favorite activities. You can also manage stress by allowing yourself to let go of some traditions this year that may not be enjoyable. The pressure of joining festivities can sometimes be taxing to both you and your child, so having a sanctuary (a room or part of a room) to escape to can be helpful.

As always with your special needs child, remember to follow your heart. Do what is best for your child and your family, even if that means saying no to some things you’d really like to say yes to this year. The holidays may look a bit different than you imagined, but just remember, you are making your own unique holiday memories with your child.

Mary Walker, OT

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