Seasonal festivities can bring stress along with the joy. Schedule upheaval, unfamiliar activities, travel and family visits can cause conflict and anxiety for anyone. For loved ones with special needs, who may have sensory challenges or issues with transition, this time of year can be especially tough. But there are ways to minimize the strain so that everyone can enjoy a memorable season.
Family customs provide predictability and comfort, an emotional anchor that can be eagerly anticipated. . Make special treats each year, play the same music, decorate in familiar ways, and read books appropriate to the season. Encourage your loved one to help with decorating, setting the table, or preparing some of the food.
Ask your loved one what they’d like to do for the holidays, and help them choose a few favorite activities, rather than trying to fit in everything. Remember, this is your holiday too, so focus on what is important to you and have realistic expectations for the entire family. Try, as much as possible, to maintain routines, since familiar agendas will help provide a reassuring structure. Plan down time, and maintain a regular sleep schedule. Remember to relax.
Prepare for upcoming events by showing pictures of family members that your child may not remember; perhaps do some role-playing to help them know what will be expected. Writing out the schedule, especially on days with special events, may also be helpful.
Although it might seem presumptuous, your family members and friends would probably appreciate a list of appropriate gifts (of varying expense and kind) that your loved one would enjoy. Shopping for presents is difficult in the best of situations, and when the recipient will be someone with special needs, helpful hints are often welcome
Consider sending an email to guests to help them understand how best to interact with your child. Let them know about triggers—that those well-intentioned hugs could be a problem! Everyone will be more relaxed as a result.
When it comes to attending performances, consider asking to sit in on a dress rehearsal, or choose a smaller local theater rather than a large urban venue. Sitting at the end of a row or in the back will allow you to slip out, if necessary. You might even plan to only attend a portion of the program.
Try to avoid crowds. Consider taking a drive to see community light displays. Many organizations offer sensory-friendly Santa events for those with special needs, or consider having Santa visit you! Also ask for help (i.e., a sitter) so that you can attend something important to you that may not be appropriate or enjoyable for your child. You might also think about having a sitter accompany you to parties or family events. That way your child will have their own attendant, allowing you to enjoy the festivities without worrying about them every minute.
Make sure food choices include your loved one’s favorites. Again, communicating these needs to family and friends you may be visiting will be key. If that is not possible, bringing appropriate food with you might be necessary. Watch the sugar!
Crowds and flashing lights, noise and strangers can make for a very unpleasant shopping experience. Try to shop at off-peak times, and limit trips to a few hours, rather than spending a whole day. Online shopping now surpasses brick-and-mortar stores for holiday expenditures, so join the crowd and do your shopping online!
If lots of family, children and others will be around, set up a break room. meant only for your child with special needs. This place would be off-limits to others and could be used by your loved one to self-regulate when feeling overwhelmed. You might stock the room with play dough, a stress ball, special music or games, a favorite book or camera. If a separate room can’t be arranged, fill a bag with special items that can help alleviate anxiety.
Don’t let holiday stress and expectations stop you from enjoying each moment. Celebrate your victories, slow down and enjoy.