As the weather changes and our attention turns to the upcoming holidays, thoughts of family connection and fun might be on most people’s minds. For many special-needs families, however, the holidays can usher in a season of hypervigilance and stress. Less familiar sights, sounds, smells and interactions can cause tension and overstimulation for our most sensory sensitive family members. But navigating the holidays does not need to be exhausting or upsetting. While special needs families may not move through these activities like others; communication, preparation, and gratitude are three points of intervention that can go a long way towards cultivating that spirit of connection and fun we all crave.
Sometimes we can inadvertently create more stress for ourselves and our children when we impose unnecessary or unrealistic expectations. Adjusting our expectations for what our child’s participation in holiday activities would look like can help both immediate caregivers and extended family members avoid surprises and potential disappointments.
While some family members may already have a strong connection with our child, some will need loving reminders/introductions about what to expect. Our little one may not be able to carry a brief conversation like other children or may need extra help at the dinner table, limiting our ability to participate in regular conversations. A large group at normal volume may be too loud and necessitate a retreat to another room. A brief explanation beforehand or having a trusted family member explain in our absence can help build understanding and empathy.
Families of special needs children should not fear communicating their needs or their child’s needs with extended family members. While some extended families might be more supportive than others with making adjustments to activities that benefit an individual, knowing what to expect ahead of time and making our needs known can go a long way towards mitigating roadblocks to connection.
Using social stories, visual schedules, and picture cards of less familiar family members can help children with special needs transition to new, holiday settings more easily. If a child can anticipate the new sensory input they are about the experience, they can be better equipped to handle these changes.
Planning brief, preferred activities for our child to do with a trusted relative at family gatherings is a great way to both increase connection among family members and give us opportunities to take small breaks. Caring for our child’s needs can be overwhelming, so creating pockets of time for us to enjoy some time among family is important as well.
In the event of possible meltdowns, working in some breaks to go outside for fresh air or to another less stimulating room as well as bringing along a comfort item, can help children regulate if the environmental demands become too overwhelming. Simple things like communicating the schedule in simple language, making sure clothing is not too itchy or hot, talking about the people they are about to meet, describing the sights and sounds that will be new, can also help to minimize sensory overload and keep those meltdowns at bay.
As caregivers, it can be difficult to make space for our own emotions regarding family obligations around the holidays. If you are feeling sad, depressed, or even resentful of how easily others may enjoy the holidays, it’s okay. As much as we love our children and rejoice in having them in our lives, no one plans on becoming a special needs parent. We must find our own way and that journey will inevitably lead to moments of sadness and stress. In these moments, expressing gratitude for what is going well is a highly recommended emotional resilience strategy.
By focusing on what we are grateful for and verbalizing that gratitude around our children, we can effectively model stress reduction strategies that can yield long-lasting emotional wellness. Laughter is another wonderful strategy to use around the holidays. Laugh where you can. The energy you create around the holidays will be contagious and your family will take note.
By expressing gratitude, being prepared for holiday activities, and communicating our needs, families can look forward to more fun and more connection. As a special needs parent, you have great instincts – don’t ignore them.
Wishing all our Kids Who Count family members a joyous, safe, and regulated holiday season.
Written by: Nancy and Jonathan Miramontes