Thursday, December 15, 2011

Helping kids with special needs enjoy the holidays: more ho, ho, ho, less woe

This morning, as I was listening to my shower radio, the DJ mentioned a new poll that showed Christmas is the happiest day of the year. That may not apply to you if you don't celebrate that holiday, of course. And there's also a chance it won't apply if you have a kid with special needs. Because the holidays can be very un-merry for kids who don't like noise, crowds, hustle and bustle, or relatives who pinch their cheeks (come to think of it, I don't like relatives who pinch my cheeks, either).

I'm a Max expert, not a child expert, but over the years I have come up with a few things that have helped make the holidays more ho, ho, ho for kids like Max with special needs:

• I let him pick out his own gifts. Perhaps not as fun as a surprise, but Max doesn't like surprises, even happy ones. Max likes routine, regularity, order, and anything with the Cars 2 logo. Knowing what he's going to get makes him content—a good thing.
• We find calm holiday activities to take the kids to (read: nothing at the mall) and we get there early. Our town sets up an adorable Dickens village every year, complete with miniature homes and horse-driven carriage rides on weekends. We're one of the first people to show up, and both kids really enjoy it. Note, although Santa can wig out kids with special needs, check with the management office at local malls to see if they have early visiting hours and private areas for kids with special needs—some now do. And if they don't? Suggest it, or ask if they'll accommodate your child. Go, you!
• We have a few relatives and their kids over for a holiday party, not a bazillion of them. Smaller crowds are easier on Max... and, bonus, easier on clean-up! (No offense, relatives.)
• During the party, I carve out quiet time for Max. He hangs out in his room and colors or plays a game (or ten) on his iPad. Or I may invite one or two kids to go upstairs and play with him there. If we're at someone else's house, I do the same.
• I'll get a babysitter if there's a big holiday party our family is invited to. I used to feel guilty leaving Max at home while the rest of us went out, but that's his idea of a good time—and that way, we all enjoy.

Oh, and that whole holiday card thing? Max does not like posing for photos, especially for ones with all of us or just with his sis. This used to torment me. But I just let go. I order digital cards designed to feature a bunch of images, and choose one OK family shot and several awesome single shots of the kids.

Letting go of holiday fantasies is a good idea, in general, when it comes to kids with special needs; focus on the reality of what makes your kid happy (and calm) and you'll all be better off.

If all else fails, hit the spiked egg nog.

What sort of tips have you come up with over the years for making the holidays happier for your child?

This is one of a series of posts sponsored by CVS Caremark All Kids Can, a commitment to making life better for children with disabilities. "Like" them on Facebook!



  1. Such great ideas. I'm glad I'm not the only one who can't get my version of the perfect Christmas card. We also have special diet issues and if we go someone that has something special (i.e. cupcakes) that my daughter can't have, watch out! So I usually check what will be on the menu where we are going and make sure my daughter has a substitute for anything she might like most but can't have.

  2. Great suggestions! We always bring our DVD to a party in case we need to take a 20 minute decompression at a party.

    Also all of my son's gifts get wrapped in tissue paper or gift bags. Somehow the noise of the wrapping paper sets him off so we just don't use it.

  3. Sage suggestions, Ellen. You have helped more than a few parents today. Barbara

  4. Ellen - wow - we do the same things - you do have to let go of the perfect holiday fantasy and do what is best (and fun) for your kid and you. I used to feel guilty that T-man's brother got more gifts and had more to open, but he doesn't care and enjoys what we get him. He just wants to play with what is familiar, where his brother wants new stuff. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you write. I know that I don't have a "typical" family and ever since I let go of trying to be like everyone else and just do what is best for us as a family, I became so much happier. We LOVE Christmas, nice and simple.
    Thank you as always for a great post. Kristen

  5. Thanks for sharing! I was just contemplating letting my son know what his gifts are before the big day. I wasn't sure until now if it would be the right thing to do. He just hates surprises! I would rather he have a happy day. Thanks for giving me the insight to trust my instincts.

  6. The crazy, loud Christmas activities just don't fly here, either.

    We have started a tradition of chilling at home in pajamas on Christmas. That cuts down on the craziness for us.

  7. Thanks for sharing this. My son plays quietly in the living room while everyone is eating in the kitchen. It took some family members a while to accept this but he likes the quiet time and usually at some point he comes out on his own and sits down to eat. Its all about what works for him.

  8. Great ideas everyone! The most important thing I've learned is to be flexible and lose the idea of what I previously thought was perfect and accept our "new" perfect! Our son loves a lot of sensory input in some ways but in other situations it's very overwhelming. Call us crazy but we get a hotel in downtown Seattle for a weekend over the holidays. Paolo loves to people watch, loves the lights, loves to ride the monorail and loves to listen to the carolers! The hardest part for him is enclosed places, those noises are hard for him so we eat most of our meals in our hotel room. There's great take out in the city so my husband and I crack open a bottle of wine, Paolo enjoys exploring the new space and we all get into the holiday spirit without being overloaded.
    Also before we wrap presents (we do tissue paper too) we take them out of the box so he can play with it right away....darn all those plastic fasteners!

  9. My son couldn't handle the glut of presents on Christmas day, so we started doing the Twelve Days of Christmas. One gift a day for each (Dec. 25 is the First Day), one small one for Christmas Eve, and any extras are on Christmas Day too. The days' presents are kept in bags in the basement, so there's not a constant visual stimulus either. Just slow it all down, so he can cope.

  10. I will never forget the year that Haley wanted to play with each present she opened, but everyone wanted her to open theirs. She had opened about three presents and she couldn't do it anymore. She just sat there and cried. That is not the kind of Christmas memories I wanted to create for my family. Now we just have a few presents each and I make sure there are equal amounts for everyone. If there was an extra it would upset her too. She does love opening presents now though. I have to hide them all and put them out after she goes to sleep on Christmas Eve.

    We do what we can and hopefully we learn.

  11. I don't have any special needs people in my family. But all your suggestions sound like great ideas for EVERYONE. My Mom always tried to make it a modern day Walton's Christmas. Hard work (oh my, the food and tasteful decorations.) Anticipation. Friction. Disappointment. Always tears. Not so great as it could be. As an adult looking back, I wish it would have been more simple. Like you are trying to achieve for your special needs children.

    I think they are great suggestions for anyone with kids. My parents would host a large holiday party (military) when I was young. Dad would put the only television in their master bedroom and my sister and I were VERY happy to stay put. It was the early sixties. Imagine the smoke, alcohol and silk hose. Some special people would come to say "hi." Mom monitored visitation.

    Those were great parties. My sister and I felt very special being in Mom and Dad's bedroom, with the only television there just for us, and an occasional visitor that Mom knew I liked. I was 4-6 years old.

    They are fonder memories than many stressful Christmas Days. Mom is now 90, Dad died on Christmas Eve from a car accident 2 years ago. These are sad days. But I loved the hotel idea. I'd love to take Mom to a hotel, have a great meal, visit in the room. Sleep tight.

    Are there any other good ideas?

  12. Our eldest finds presents very upsetting and the expectation from others that he would open a present and be pleased was just too much last year!

    We've bought him a few nice things that we'll reveal bit by bit but we've asked family to video themselves waving at their front doors. His present will be an edited video with all his special people waving hello to him. he can watch it over and again!

    Also someone has to pick up Grandma on Christmas day - he loves being in the car so will spend an hour or two in the car collecting her and taking her home!

  13. lot of people freak me out too having SPD.Right now i am escaped from my grandfathers 40 person birthday party.Too loud for me which is odd as I have a hearing loss.


Thanks for sharing!