“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow. There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago. …It’s the most wonderful time of they year! With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer!” Can you hear Andy Williams crooning?
Unfortunately, for many special needs families, Christmas (or other holidays) are not the most wonderful time of the year. Many of the things mentioned in the song overwhelm their children. Parties become more of a challenge to navigate than a gathering to enjoy. Consider this article a little public service announcement. What follows is a combination of personal experience, stories of friends, and input from the women of Special Needs Moms Network.
Let’s start with sensory challenges, since this may be one of the biggest challenges for a person with special needs as they go through the holiday season. Neurotypical folks deck their halls with extra lights (some seizure-inducing flashing lights, some not), musical and moving decorations, scented candles, and more. Imagine you’re someone prone to headaches or nausea from smells–this can be a bad thing. For some people, extra noises cause their bodies to shut down. This overstimulating season can be agony. For the girl who hates being touched, think about trying to avoid all of those extra friends and family trying to hug you, kiss you, pat your head, etc. Run while you can! The National Autistic Society over in the United Kingdom created a great video to help others understand a little of what a child with sensory needs experiences. It’s called, “Can you make it to the end?” (Bonus tip: If you have a guest with special needs, consider offering a quiet place where they can go when the festivities are too overwhelming or they have medical needs to attend to. This thoughtfulness will speak volumes.)
Speaking of sensory, let’s discuss expectations of friends and family. Please be understanding if a child comes to your home in sweatpants when you’re expecting fancy holiday sweaters. You may see a child who couldn’t be bothered to dress appropriately and a parent who didn’t make their child be polite. What you don’t see is a child who can’t stand the feel of most fabrics and needs tags cut out of clothing. Is a child backing away from certain foods? Don’t push it. If a boy falls apart over the texture of mashed foods, is it really that important that he eats Aunt Sophie’s sweet potato casserole recipe handed down for generations? Some children are afraid of people who are dressed up in silly holiday clothing or Santa suits. Instead of leaving lots of examples here, just be okay with things not going the way you expect or think they should be.
When a child with medical needs comes to visit, the caregiver spends a great deal of time packing everything up to ensure a successful visit. A parent may need extra room for special equipment such as a feeding tube or oxygen tank. Mom may need a larger space for changing a larger child in diapers. Is your home wheelchair friendly? Serious medical issues does not mean a child doesn’t want to interact with you. If you’re unsure of the best way to visit with a child, ask her parents. Sure, the extra medical equipment may be intimidating. Underneath is a child who wants to be loved.
Many children with special needs have a hard time with impulse control. This can be for a variety of reasons. Should a boy break something, he wasn’t trying to be malicious. More than likely the sparkle or character drew him in and he wanted to see what it felt like. Or maybe it’s in his favorite color. Don’t assume the child is a brat. If there are things you don’t want broken, remove them from the area. Some boys and girls will speak rather frankly or blurt out things considered to be rude. Others may have involuntary tics they can’t control, whether verbally or physically. Again, patience and kindness go a long way. Staring and scowling does not help.
Another topic special needs parents bring up is schedule. Many kids with special needs get overwhelmed when they have busy schedules. Their bodies and minds need time to reset between gatherings. Often a change in routine makes life very difficult for them. Should a parent tell you they cannot attend an activity, do your best not to take it personally. They are simply trying to help their son or daughter navigate the season successfully.
In addition, should you be at an event and see a child meltdown, remember there are many reasons for this, such as sensory, overstimulated, and just plain tired and can’t handle it anymore. Also, parents would like you to understand their children really don’t need a lot of stuff, that the extra things in their rooms or home overwhelm them. You may want to consider money towards a membership or a subscription service in lieu of the latest toy. In correlation, if a child seems unappreciative of a gift, remember there could be many reasons for their reaction and they also don’t have the sophistication to handle the social situation as you might expect.
Parents of children with special needs want you to understand that you can’t see every effect right away. What seems small to you may affect their child for days, weeks, or months. Plus, our kids, just like “normal” kids, change from day to day. What was a success once may be a flop another day. If a parent tells you it’s too much, just be gracious and accepting. Even if they can’t attend, your invitation means a lot.
Finally, parents want you to know they are finding ways for their families to enjoy the holidays. They are grateful you want to celebrate with them. Just remember sometimes it just needs to be in a different way. Simple tweaks or acceptance that it needs to be different makes a huge difference. People with special needs enjoy festivities, too, just in their own way. I invite you to spread the awareness by clicking the share buttons below.
For further reading:
Now it’s your turn, special needs reader. What am I missing? What would you like others to know? Leave a comment!
I’ve created a FREE template you can use to help others have fun with your child this holiday season. They’ll know how best to interact with your child, reducing stress for everyone. It’s a win-win-win! There are three versions, two with pictures in the background and one without. Simply fill out the form below and tell me where to send your freebie!
Many times our friends want to have fun with our child with special needs, but don't understand how. What if we could help them understand?
Use this FREE template to reduce anxiety and confusion and help everyone enjoy the holiday season.