Who's a Grinch ?!? Holiday Tips Special Needs Children Want You to Know
Most of us are stressed around the holidays and all of us probably know a family with a child diagnosed with autism, or depression/anxiety, as both these disorders have disproportionately increased in recent years. The CDC reports that autism diagnoses more than doubled since 2000, and depression among teens rose at quadruple the rate of the general population from 2005-2015. With the media showing unrealistic scenes of holiday bliss with intact families celebrating abundance, high-poverty families may already be struggling to manage their child’s expectations, but add a special needs child to the equation and the difficulties are magnified.
Here are some tips that come straight from youth I have worked with, as well as years of creating happy holiday alternatives for students with varied complex needs:
While holiday gatherings can be a source of joy, a depressed adolescent or one with autism may be overwhelmed by large groups, too many hugs, and unfamiliar foods. Choose wisely which events to attend and plan an “escape” for your child, e.g. a quiet room with iPad or phone, ability to leave early if overwhelmed, bring familiar food. It is helpful to have a “script” for family members who may be confused or offended by a child’s behavior. “You know that my child is easily overwhelmed by large groups/noise/touching/unfamiliar foods, so in order to prevent a meltdown, s/he will join us for the first part of the evening, but will be allowed to go to a quiet space later on, and we may not be able to stay for the whole time. I hope you understand”.
Decide on what makes sense for your child and create new traditions that the child will know to expect over the years. It could be a family dinner with your child’s favorite foods and favorite relatives, or a sensory-friendly performance (see info under community section for ideas). This may mean letting go of traditions that are just too difficult for your child, but be creative and you may find new traditions that are enjoyable for all.
Gift-giving is often a big part of holiday celebrations, so be sure your child understands the “rules” of your family in regards to gifts. There are also many gifts that would be appreciated by children or young adults with disabilities including "stim jewelry" (manipulative jewelry that they can use to “self-stim"), as well as comfort items like weighted blankets, squeeze toys, puzzles, and other items that have been identified as favorites. If a gift does not match the recipient, it may be confusing or uncomfortable for the child to receive.
Check in with staff who know the students best (substantially separate teachers, speech and language or other therapists, etc.) as they will know the needs of specific students.
Holiday assemblies can be a lot of fun, but frightening to special needs students. Allow use of noise-cancelling headphones for students with autism who are sensitive to noise and seat students where they can exit unobtrusively as needed and are supervised by familiar staff. In the spirit of inclusion, make sure students with special needs are encouraged to participate in the talent show, chorus, or other student performances, as it is much more likely that special needs students will be interested in the show if their peers are performing (and it’s the right thing to do! As for all students, make sure that the celebrations are inclusive of varied cultural traditions.
That kid in the supermarket having a meltdown may not be just a “spoiled brat”, but perhaps an overstimulated child with autism. Asking the parent, “Is there something I can do to help?” is a safe way to offer support, without causing more upset by addressing the child directly. Offering a harried parent/guardian with a distressed child the opportunity to jump ahead in the check-out line can also be invaluable.
In recent years, the joy of “The Nutcracker,” “The Polar Express” and other holiday classics has become more accessible thanks to sensory-friendly and autism-friendly performances. In an environment modified to avoid extremes, low house lights stay on, loud sounds are muted, strobe lights eliminated and audience silence and stillness are not expected. A hair salon in my area offers “Sensory Sundays” where special needs children can get haircuts in a low-key, sensory friendly environment and Target stores also offer sensory friendly shopping. Google “sensory friendly” in your area to see what is available. More are added each year as awareness increases.