It's that time of year again—bells are jingling and everyone's supposed to be jolly. But if you're a parent of a child with special needs like autism and sensory processing disorder, the approaching holidays are enough to make you want to hide under the nearest table until the New Year.
How will my child cope with the big turkey dinner and all those family gatherings?
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While the chaos that is December is supposed to be F-U-N, the reality is quite the opposite for a lot of us whose kids struggle to cope with all the hype and commotion. I know, because I was one of those kids. And it used to drive my mother crazy. Every year I'd get so ramped up that by the time Christmas Eve finally rolled around, while all my cousins were decked out in pretty outfits I'd be in my pajamas, having already been to bed with a migraine!
So consider these holiday survival tips an early gift courtesy of Cara Koscinski. Not only is Cara a respected occupational therapist, author and co-founder of The Pocket Occupational Therapist, she's the mom of two boys with autism, so the woman knows of what she speaks!
- Give kids a job to do so that they will have a sense of belonging and success. Even something such as helping to create place markers for seating or setting the table can give kids a feeling of accomplishment.
- Remember that heavy work is generally calming. Include activities such as moving chairs, picking up and placing dirty clothes into a basket and carrying it to the laundry room, or vacuuming are great ways to encourage children to help to prepare for the party.
- Encourage comfortable clothing and avoid new and scratchy clothing. Family gatherings should be focused on providing fun memories and not on appearance.
- Practice greetings ahead of time. My son does not enjoy hugs, so we practice reaching out his hand for a handshake or high five. Let family and guests know ahead of time that your child shows affection, but in a different way.
- Consider food allergies and sensitivities. Bring extra “safe” foods that match what others are eating to be sure children feel included. For example, if cousins are eating macaroni and cheese, we prepare my son’s gluten free version and bring it along. Out of respect for the host, talk with her ahead of time and thank her for hospitality.
- Plan an “out” or an escape plan. Even a short visit that is successful can create memories that last a lifetime! Remind yourself that the holidays are about fun and not stress. Don’t be hard on yourself or your child.
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- Utilize relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. Social stories can help with anxiety. Whenever possible, use actual pictures and rehearse as much as you are able.
- Create a “safe-zone” to which the child can go whenever they feel overwhelmed. Set a password or sign that your child can use to excuse himself. Place a bean bag, calming music, a heavy blanket, and favorite hand fidget toy in the area. Practice ahead of time.
- Use calming scents such as vanilla during the party. Essential oils can be calming in scents such as lavender. Encourage your child to choose scents prior to the event and keep them accessible.
- Create a letter to family members prior to family gatherings to explain your child’s wonderful progress toward goals and suggestions for conversation topics. For example: “Joshua’s had a wonderful year in therapy. He’s learned how to tie his shoes, take one turn during conversations, and how to write in cursive. Joshua likes Angry Birds. Here’s a link to the Angry Birds’ website if you’d like more information. Please know that even though he’s not looking directly into your eyes, he IS listening to you and loves you!”
- At mealtime, make sure to serve a preferred food so that children who have feeding difficulties can successfully participate. Encourage positivity during family mealtime.
- Rehearse family’s names and match them to their picture. We practiced family recognition beginning in November. When the child is familiar with the person’s name, add the family member’s interest such as favorite color or food, occupation, or hobby.
If only I'd picked Cara's brains a few years ago... My son became so overwhelmed that we ended up eating pie and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas while holed up in my uncle's bedroom—away from the very people we had come to see. So much for the magic. I focused on soothing my distraught boy, yet at the same time my heart hurt both for him and for us. Would we ever be able to enjoy a family get-together again?
The answer is of course; we just have to put a bit more thought and planning into it. Hopefully, armed with these tips, you and your family will, too!