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An elementary school boy sits in front of a computer in his special education school while holding up a page of autographs.



Keeping Your Child Engaged During the Holidays

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While some children find the winter holiday season exhilarating and joyful, many children with special needs struggle this time of year. The lights, sounds, and crowds can be overwhelming for children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and developmental delays. But resourceful special-needs parents have found many ways to control the chaos so they can include their child in family-favorite holiday traditions. Below are some tips for navigating the holidays successfully.

Plan Ahead

Many children with special needs are routine-oriented. Without proper notice, changes in their routine can have undesired consequences. You can give your child notice of the upcoming day changes by using visual schedules or visual stories. Allowing your child to manipulate their visual schedule gives them a sense of control over their day, despite all the changes to their routine. You can use a visual story to introduce new family members, places, or activities your child may encounter over their holiday break. Print off a weekly calendar page and add a picture of your planned activities during the holidays, and this will help put your child at ease about the week ahead.

Give Your Child a Task and a Schedule

Giving your child tasks to do during family gatherings reduces the stress of having new people in the house. My son loves to be in the kitchen, so I always have him help with baking. Provide a to-do list of tasks for your child that they can help with your holiday preparations.

Reduce The Stress

Try to find ways to reduce the stress – both on your child and you. Schedule in quiet times and create chill-out zones in your home. Remember, your child will pick up on your stress levels, so try not to over-work yourself.

Ask For Help

Talk to family members ahead of time. Discuss your child’s specific needs, and gently but firmly tell them what your plans are. Be sure to let them know that this will make the whole experience better for everyone. Ask for their support. Friends and family may not understand how they can help unless you tell them. You can provide a list of ways your family can support you. This list can be by looking after other children to helping with the cooking and other tasks.

Stick to a Routine

As tempting as it may be to let your child stay up late or sleep in during holiday breaks, this is not recommended for those with special needs. Keeping your child on a similar sleep/wake schedule will help reduce tantrums throughout the day. When away from home for the holidays, your child will find comfort in knowing their routine is the same (or as close as possible).

Wrap Up Familiar Toys

If your child is not keen on opening presents because they’re new and unfamiliar, try wrapping up some favorite toys. Sometimes unwrapping something familiar is very reassuring.

Provide Sensory-Related Activities

For many of the fall and winter holidays, sensory input is at a maximum. Many children with special needs are easily overwhelmed between Christmas twinkling lights and Hanukkah’s fragrant oils cooking. To help with this adjustment, introduce new sites, smells and sounds one at a time, when possible. Combine it with familiar, cozy sensory input as well. Take time to introduce new smells and sights through sensory play. One idea I use with my son is adding cinnamon to his favorite playdough.

Create a Calm Down Space

Whenever you visit a person’s house or stay at your own, establish a “safe zone” for your child so that he or she can retreat and be alone, if desired. The calm down area may be a room in the house or even a desk he or she can crawl under for a time. While having a calm down space will not entirely prevent meltdowns, it can certainly help reduce the number of them when spending time away from home.

Pack your child’s favorites

When visiting friends or relatives, fill a backpack with things your child finds comforting or enjoys playing with – toy cars, a stuffed animal, musical selection, or a few books. If your child becomes overstimulated, find a quiet corner or a back room and pull out the backpack.

Reserve Some Special Time for Your Child

It’s easy to get overloaded with festive preparations at this time of year, so plan daily activities to make some time for your kids – i.e., 5 to 10 minutes of undivided attention. Let your child take the lead, tune into their world, and see it through their eyes.

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