I’ve been living this special needs life with my family for nearly 13 years now. I’ve learned a lot over that time, but I still learn something new every single year.
It doesn’t help that things constantly change with my kids, meaning that a strategy that has served us well in the past may no longer do the job in future. It’s always the way, isn’t it?
Despite the challenge of having to continually evolve with my kids, I have come to rely on a number of strategies to make the holiday season more bearable for all of us.
Here’s my holiday survival guide for special needs families. It may be too late to help you this year but it’s worth bookmarking and saving for next year.
Holiday Survival Guide for Special Needs Families
Space out gift giving over a few days
Instead of being a fun and joyful time, receiving gifts can be a source of stress and anxiety for many kids with special needs. For some kids, it can be overwhelming to receive multiple gifts at the one time, while others may dislike surprises or not know how to react should they receive a gift they don’t really like.
My kids love opening gifts, however, once the initial frenzy of present opening is over, that’s it – apparently there’s nothing else to look forward to. I found Matilda in tears on Christmas Night as she mourned that Christmas was over. In her mind there was nothing else to look forward to once the presents were opened and their secrets revealed.
That’s why it might be a good idea to space out gift giving over a few days. This will reduce overwhelm, limit anxiety and help keep the magic and spirit of the season alive. Next year, I’m going to try giving a couple of gifts on Christmas Eve, giving the Santa presents on Christmas morning and then gifting the rest on Boxing Day.
Hopefully it will help us all enjoy the season a little more while keeping anxiety levels low, spirits up and moods high.
Limit the number of social gatherings
I know this is easier said than done but it makes sense to limit the number of social gatherings you attend as a special needs family. We attend very little in the lead up to Christmas and do our best to spend as little time away from home as possible between Christmas and New Year too.
While I’d love to be more social myself, I know I won’t enjoy myself if my kids are stressed or upset. I’ve made that mistake too many times before!
My kids are happiest at home, with close family and in familiar surroundings. Which is why we will only accept social invitations to places we have been before or from close friends and family. This strategy works for us as it reduces anxiety, decreases the chance of upset and makes the silly season less silly for all of us.
Set a timeframe for social gatherings
If limiting the number of events proves impossible due to family commitments, set a time limit for attendance instead. Be open and state how long you will be able to stay when accepting the invitation and remind the host again when you arrive. That way you remain in control of the situation and you can give your kids a solid timeframe for when they can expect to go home.
In our experience, two hours is the optimal timeframe for social occasions before the stress and strain gets too much. We found this out again to our cost on Christmas Day when we stayed a couple of hours too long, thinking we could stretch things out in the presence of close family. Set a clear timeframe and stick to it – it will definitely be worth it.
Offer to bring food your kids will eat
When attending social gatherings, offer to bring a contribution of food that you know your kids will eat. On Christmas Day we attended a family lunch where we brought along dessert. We brought along the requested pavlova (a family favourite) as well as a gluten free chocolate cake as I knew Gilbert and Delilah would not eat the pav.
I’ve also brought along oven baked pies and sausage rolls in the past to ensure Gilbert had something he would eat, among the traditional meat, salads and seafood. It’s a little thing but it can make such a difference to everyone. You will feel less stress knowing there will not be a fight about food and your child will avoid unnecessary upset and sensory overwhelm too.
Put together a social survival kit
It pays to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best when it comes to social occasions. To help ensure you and your family have the best possible time, put together a social survival kit for your kids.
When we prepare for outings, we include some of the following items. Your list will obviously be different but think about including anything that may help reduce anxiety, beat boredom, manage sensory issues and keep them calm.
- Device – phone, tablet, gaming device, with movies, music and games already loaded
- Quiet entertainment – books, colouring in, puzzle
- Sensory items – weighted lap blanket, ear muffs, chewy jewellery, fidget toy
- Snacks – crunchy, soft or chewy food to provide sensory input
- Extra clothes – should they get wet, become overwhelmed, decide they need to wear something else
- Calming item – blanket, doll, teddy, toy
This social survival kit is not just for your child – it’s for you too. I know I’ve been able to feel more relaxed and ready to be social knowing my kids are as comfortable as they can be. So consider putting together a social survival kit for the next social gathering you attend as a special needs family.
Visuals + Social Stories = Less Anxiety
Never underestimate the power of visuals and social stories, even for older special needs kids. They really do lessen anxiety and help manage behaviours in any child, especially those on the autism spectrum.
Visual cues help guide kids through the most minor of changes and provide a greater sense of certainty. Visuals can help them be more comfortable in daily life, better cope with change and to understand what is expected of them. I know, for instance, my kids thrive on calendars, routines, schedules and timetables.
Created by Carol Gray in the early 1990’s, social stories are widely used with kids on the autism spectrum to describe and define social situations. Social stories provide a framework for them to follow, so they can more confidently engage in social interactions.
Visuals and social stories can grow with your child and there are endless examples you can source online, for every possible scenario. Here are some links to free holiday visual & social story resources to get you started:
Consider using a holiday routine
The lack of routine of the holiday season is one of the main soruces of anxiety for my children, even for Delilah, my neurotypical daughter.
While it’s fabulous having the chance to enjoy time without the shadow of a work or school routine, structure helps special needs families function. Kids can really struggle without the expectations, rules, certainty and comfort that a routine provides.
That’s why you should consider taking the time to prepare a holiday routine. A holiday routine doesn’t have to be as prescriptive as a normal routine. It just needs to state what activities and tasks are expected to be completed on a given day and provide some idea of what the day will involve for your kids.
Used in conjunction with a calendar, a holiday routine can pay off for your family by:
- Providing structure to each day, thereby eliminating anxiety – your child will know what to expect with a routine to follow.
- Setting expectations for each day, to help manage behaviour and provide purpose – uncertainty is removed and order restored.
- Giving responsibility through daily chores and tasks to foster a sense of achievement – your child will feel they have contributed and are valued.
Check out my free printables post to learn how to make a routine (and how to make it work!).
Like you, I’m always learning and I’m always finding new and different ways to approach the holiday season. I suspect we’re on the cusp of even more changes now my older spectrum kids are nearly teenagers!
Do you have any holiday survival guide tips to share?