Navigating the Holidays as a Special Needs Family

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We all know that the holidays can be a chaotic time for everyone. Add in 20 months of a global pandemic, a slew of new rules which have altered how we travel and being a family who has a loved one with special needs.

Let’s talk turkey! Thanksgiving, while my favorite holiday is the one with the most smells.  While I personally love a good pumpkin pie, turkey, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes, that may not be something a person with food texture aversions will like at ALL.  Regardless of where you’re eating, make sure to have some preferred foods to avoid anyone from losing their stuffing!!!

Daylight Savings Time and School Vacations 

Whoever decided we needed three weeks off of school following daylight savings time surely didn’t have children.  Daylight savings time is NOT your holiday helper (or mine either).

It’s often beneficial to work on the transition both before and after the time change to help your child or other family members transition slowly.  Quite frankly, it is responsible for many of the uninvited holiday shenanigans.  I don’t know about you but the only thing I want melting down is the butter on my popcorn.

For school-age children, the largest obstacle is likely the aforementioned extended time off.  Typically those who do best in a structured environment, need that same level of planning at home.  I know this is an area where I fall short and the effects often linger long after the holidays are over.  Sticking to routines by using visual or auditory timers and images can help alleviate the fear of the unknown for your family.  It’s not only okay but recommended to even schedule in some down-time.

Below find my tips for making it through the holidays without losing your Hallmark spirit:

Stick to routines as best you can; especially bedtime. 

  • Disruptions to sleep can make one more susceptible to night terrors and who has time for that?  This is the easiest one to lose sight of because we want the kids to have a great time and be included in the festivities but we all need a good night’s rest.  Who says you can’t have a New Year’s party at noon?  You do what works best for your family.

It’s preferable to plan holiday gatherings on your turf so your child or other loved one has the benefit of the home team advantage. 

  • Just in case there are any concerns with wandering, this adds another layer of protection by staying in familiar settings.  In addition, if someone needs some time to relax, they can do so comfortably in their own space.  In addition, you can set the time and the tone of the gathering to yield the best possible outcome.

Set time aside before gatherings to introduce or re-introduce those you will be spending time with to your children. 

  • This can be done with photos or even a zoom video chat.  Make a small album and bring with you if you’ll be traveling.  You can chat about all the people you will get to see.

Politely decline restaurant invitations unless you feel confident about the unknown. 

  • It’s just not conducive to a low stress gathering where you can have some element of a controlled environment.

If you have decided to travel, bring a small bag of tricks in your purse or carry on.

  • A dram with some essential oils, noise canceling headphones, favorite card game, play dough or kinetic sand and the one size fits nearly all Cheerios can be of significant help. For young children, I never go anywhere without the straw size wands of bubbles. Buy a case of them and life will never be the same. They’re non-toxic and have so little liquid that it can go in your purse or carry on without being sniffed out by airport security.  Besides, who doesn’t like bubbles?  If your fellow travelers seem a little nervous, hand out some wands and let everyone join in the party. On a LONG international flight with my newly adopted toddler, even the flight attendants joined the fun.  

If your child or other loved one has mobility needs, ask in advance of any obstacles to plan for. 

  • If the environment won’t be conducive, it’s okay to politely decline the invite.  Things like a piece of plywood which can act as a ramp, accessible restroom or access to playrooms are often needed for one’s dignity and feelings of being valued, so look to your child for cues.

Have a pre-identified chill zone.

  • If you’re visiting family or friends, let them know what you need to be able to not just attend but lessen the stress of your time together.  Whether it’s a camping tent set up in the guest room or some dim lighting, soft music and a favorite blanket from home, this is the best way your family/friends can support you.

Bring or request comfort foods be available for your family member. 

  • Whether it’s a preferred drink, favorite spoon or food item, familiarly can help establish feelings of comfort and comfort can help foster a sense of security.

Gifts are appreciated but can complicate things if too challenging to unwrap. 

  • You can help by loosening ribbons or even packing a few empty gift bags just in case  Since we know the expression of thanks isn’t always at the forefront of the recipient’s mind, a thoughtful photo of your family member enjoying their gift at home with a note is a great way to express appreciation for their kind gesture.  You may also want to wrap a duplicate of a favorite toy, just in case someone needs another comfort of home.

Just Say Know!

Prepare your friends/family in advance.  Remind them of what will help mitigate the chaos and receive their affirmation they welcome your family unconditionally.   

Above all else, encourage body autonomy.  I understand great Aunt Ethel really loves pinching cheeks, giving kisses and hugs but children need to know they can say no.  No one is obligated to allow physical touch especially those who have heightened senses or prior trauma.  Practice how you’d like this to look but do not punish a child who has difficulty in navigating this politely.  We also do not need to force children to give kisses or hugs in exchange for a gift.  There are many ways to express thanks and that’s not one of them.

Give Yourself Grace 

Lastly, do not be upset if your family traditions are different than the ones you grew up with or look different than other families.  Your vision of what togetherness looks like is all yours.  

If you have a child who loves stuffed animals, hang them on your Christmas tree.  Heck, my typical child had difficulty letting go of her pacifiers, which she called “ha-feez”.  You bet we strung some ribbon on them and donned them all on a  tree. Have I mentioned I’m also Jewish?  (Insert the giggle). 

It’s the perfect time to start new traditions that will make you look back someday and know in your heart, you met your child or other loved ones needs by making this time of year their own.  There is absolutely nothing you can buy in a store that will top this.  

My own family is quite unique.  We are a mix of Caucasian, Chinese, Jewish and Catholic and celebrate whatever we’re invited to.  At home we do Hanukkah with a side of Christmas and lately Lunar New Year.  It doesn’t always look as magical as planned but it’s all ours.

With Love,

Lisa

This article was written by Lisa Eisenberg who is a Social Worker and Special Needs Advocate.  She is a New York City transplant and has lived in the Orlando area since 2011.  She has two daughters age 9 and 15 and is a small business owner at www.lisaeisenberg.com.  If you enjoyed these tips, please feel free to join my email list for more helpful tips throughout the year.

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