This article is from the just-mailed 2012 Issue 3 of Home Educating Family Magazine and was written by Jenny Herman, Director of Social Media at Home Educating Family Magazine. The original provides a printable version pdf if you wish to hand it out to help others understand what your family faces at the holidays.
It’s Not the Most Wonderful time of the Year
Around the world, Andy Williams croons over the shopping mall loudspeakers: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year! With the kids jingle-belling and everyone telling you, ‘Be of good cheer!’ It’s the most wonderful time of the year! There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow…” As a mom to a child on the autism spectrum, I know for many children and their families, this is just not true. In fact, in some cases, it’s the most horrible time of the year because of sensory issues, social delays, communication deficits, food challenges, and more!
Autism touches 1 in 88 children. Even more children have sensory issues severe enough to impair ability to function in “normal” situations. Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, attachment disorders, epilepsy, and other challenges also find holidays to be highly stressful. Don’t forget those who fight a variety of allergies or have serious illnesses! Looking over this short list, it is very likely you will encounter at least one child who does not enjoy traditional holiday festivities. By understanding what these children face, and opening yourself to letting go of traditional expectations, you can give a wonderful present: comfort in the midst of a very uncomfortable time.
I have learned to view life from a different perspective since my son began exhibiting traits of autism. I now see blinking lights, Christmas trees, large groups, unwrapping presents, etc. very differently. Let’s look at this song through different lenses to understand what many children face.
Ah, the sounds of the holidays! Most of us love the music, the fire crackling, the laughter, and squeals of delight. However, to children with sensory issues, these things are not so lovely. For some people, the “pleasant” sound of a fire popping can cause pain, or holiday music could be so irritating they act out in frustration. Sensory issues don’t end with sounds. Consider flashing lights for folks with epilepsy or visual perception challenges. Wool sweaters and corduroy pants can cause sensory meltdowns. Foods that appear on tables but once a year cause anxiety. A mixture of aromas from food and candles can cause great discomfort.
Everyone telling you “Be of good cheer!”
Consider for a moment visiting a foreign country with a language you don’t understand—not the tiniest bit of comprehension. Many children experience this every day, except they’re not visiting a foreign country. For whatever reason, they can’t communicate well or at all. Add to this challenge all of the extra social expectations of the holidays, and you can begin to see why children cry or crumble to the floor. They either don’t understand you or they can’t tell you what they need.
Parties for hosting
There are many invisible special needs. Children with developmental delays and anxiety issues do not look different. You cannot see on their body the impact that crowds will have on them, but the issue is very real. Eye contact can cause discomfort or keep a child from concentrating on what you are saying. Being bumped in a crowd seems like a small thing, but to some it can trigger anger or fear. Many children do not understand social rules and have to work extremely hard to navigate through a party. What about all of the holiday paraphernalia that people ask kids to wear, like Santa hats? Some children are afraid of those things or just hate things that are different. Let’s not forget the inevitable holiday pictures! “Look at the camera! Sit still!” Also, parties are anything but routine, and change is very unsettling for children on the autism spectrum, as well as others.
Marshmallows for toasting
Food sensitivities and allergies are becoming more prevalent. Many parents use a special diet with their children for a variety of reasons. Additionally, some young people avoid certain foods because of color, texture, or smell. While most people look forward to holiday buffets, these children cringe at the thought of taking “just one bite.”
Caroling out in the snow
Being outside presents challenges for a variety of special needs children. Obviously, those in wheelchairs or who need other equipment will have a difficult time in winter snow. Other children may be truly frightened of being outside. Some cannot stand the temperature change. Youngsters may not like the feel of the snow on their skin or the sound of walking on the snow. There are many children who cannot stand to wear winter clothing like jackets, mittens, and boots.
Hap-Happiest Season of All
So, do the holidays have to remain a lump of coal for these children? Certainly not! There are many things you can do to reduce stress and give them a great time.
- If you are hosting and know a child has anxiety or gets overstimulated, make a calm, quiet space available. Don’t know in advance? That’s ok! You can still offer a retreat.
- Don’t get annoyed if a child doesn’t want to try your mother’s sweet potato recipe passed down for generations. Is it really that important?
- Ask! It’s ok to ask parents ahead of time, “How can I make our gathering special for your child?”
- If a child just won’t look at the camera or wear festive headgear for a picture, let it go. A happy time for all is much more important than a child screaming because the turkey feathers scare him.
- Wanting to give a gift? You may want to ask parents if there is anything their child loves to collect, or would they rather have money towards a museum membership? Especially with children on the autism spectrum, you cannot predict a response to a present. If the reaction is not what you’d hoped, do your best to remember they are a child.
- Speaking of gifts, sitting still for lots of people to open presents can be excruciating for many. Let them walk around, play with a toy, or just go play in a different room if necessary.
- Ask guests if there are any food allergies in their family. See if there are things you can have as alternatives, or invite them to bring something.
- Avoid judging parents because of a child’s behavior, lack of social skills, or casual clothing.
Now that you’ve looked at the holidays from the perspective of a child with special needs, I hope that you will watch for ways to make these children more comfortable and help them enjoy the holidays in their own ways. Consider the stress on the rest of the family as well. My biggest tip is to relax expectations and think about what is most important. With a little adjustment and a lot of compassion, you have the ability to change the holidays from “the most horrible time” to “the most wonderful time!”
Ways to Help Special Needs Families during the Holidays:
- Watch the children so mom and dad can go Christmas shopping. If it is not possible to be alone with the children, offer to go along and help with the children while mom shops.
- Shovel a sidewalk, wrap presents, or make some holiday goodies—all of these take extra energy that mom and dad just may not have.
- Offer childcare so parents can attend a holiday gathering.
- Give a $5 gift card to a coffee shop—it gives the caretaker a chance to relax.
- Take a sibling on a special outing. Life is stressful for him, too.
- Make a meal. Check for food allergies or texture sensitivities first.
- Ask how the caregiver is doing and listen.
- Don’t be offended if they decline a social invitation.
- Create a movie night/date night basket for mom and dad.
- Volunteer to do some housework, especially if you know the family is expecting company.
You also might want to check out Carol Barnier’s thoughts on this same topic!
How do you help your special needs kids happily make it through the holiday season? Share your ideas in the comments below.