The noise, lights, smells, people and activity of holiday gatherings can be overwhelming for neurotypical children and even many adults. It is little wonder, then, that children with special needs may struggle in these environments. If you are hosting a celebration or are a parent of a child with special needs, what can you do to make holiday gatherings less stressful and more joyful?
Tom Flis (MS, BCBA, LBA, LCPC), clinical director of The Center for Autism at Sheppard Pratt, advises that every individual responds to stressful situations in a unique way.
“We have a saying in the autism world that when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Things affect people differently,” says Flis.
Flis also suggests that the first step in creating an inclusive holiday season is communication.
“It’s really important that if you’re the one hosting the special event, you should reach out to the family member with special needs or the caregivers and find out about them,” says Flis.
Many individuals with special needs may have dietary considerations. Again, the first step for party hosts is communication. Ask the child’s parents directly about what they like to eat.
Thoughtful menu planning is especially important to Jennifer Nakhla, a mother of two school-aged children. Her oldest, Carter, has autism spectrum disorder and food aversions that cause him to have a very limited diet.
“We used to get frustrated that he used to not eat with us at holiday meals. I didn’t understand why,” recalls Nakhla. “Then I realized the smells and sights of all of that food were overwhelming to him. Now, we try to keep the more delicious-smelling things on the other side of the table.”
Designate a safe, quiet space where children can escape when they need a moment to decompress.
“Designate a safe place where your child can go to take a break if the party becomes overstimulating,” advises Flis. “It should be away from others, perhaps with the comfort items available to them, like noise-canceling headphones or a preferred activity.”
Nahkla, too, has found that designating a safe space for Carter during family gatherings has been essential.
“Carter can retreat and focus on what he wants to focus on, and not be overwhelmed by grandparents asking questions, lights on the tree, the smell of fireplace or food,” explains Nakhla. “While you and I may not even notice these stimuli, kids on the spectrum process stimuli differently, so it can easily become overwhelming.”
Plan for success
Children with special needs tend to do better when they have a predictable schedule. Parents can create schedule boards and discuss them with their children at the beginning of the day. By talking through what your child will do that day before you do it, it helps them plan and feel some ownership for the day’s events.
Holiday gatherings also introduce new people, new experiences and new foods, which can be overwhelming. Parents and family members can help children with special needs by familiarizing them with these new experiences in advance.
“Social stories” are a great tool to help children process what will happen at a family gathering. Nakhla says this tool helped Carter become familiar with the faces of people he didn’t already know.
“When Carter was younger, I would put a booklet together that explained Christmas Eve is on this day, people will come over at this time, and here are the faces and names of the people who are coming over,” she says. “The more information I could share ahead of time helped Carter feel less overwhelmed during the family event.”
Lead with love
Making your holidays more inclusive not only benefits the loved one in your life who has special needs, but it may also shape the way you and your guests see the world.
“We all have strengths and weaknesses and things we’re really good at and things we’re not,” says Flis. “Planning an event that accommodates all different people is another way we can take care of each other.”
Nahkla agrees, “I spend a lot of time teaching Carter how to communicate with his neurotypical peers. I sometimes wish others spent as much time teaching these peers how to interact with kids on the spectrum. When you can come to their level instead of making them come to you, there’s something beautiful that comes from that. These kids on the spectrum have reshaped how I see the world. The way Carter sees the world is so beautiful. He doesn’t see the ‘yuck’ we see. He doesn’t separate people like we do. Anyone who knows him is a friend. That’s a pretty great way to live.”