Day 24 ~ making it through the holidays with children who have special needs



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.

Kids jingle-belling

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Shovel a sidewalk, wrap presents, or make some holiday goodies—all of these take extra energy that mom and dad just may not have.
  3. Offer childcare so parents can attend a holiday gathering.
  4. Give a $5 gift card to a coffee shop—it gives the caretaker a chance to relax.
  5. Take a sibling on a special outing. Life is stressful for him, too.
  6. Make a meal. Check for food allergies or texture sensitivities first.
  7. Ask how the caregiver is doing and listen.
  8. Don’t be offended if they decline a social invitation.
  9. Create a movie night/date night basket for mom and dad.
  10. 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.



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  1. Lori says

    We have a wonderful, autistic 14 year old son. Christmas has always been hard. The very best thing we can do for Jack is to be home as much as we possibly can. If we do have to go to a party, we bring paper, colors, and most recently, the i pad. We are finally learning to accept that our family is different and it is OK to just say “no, thank you” to only the very most important things.

  2. Anthea says

    What a great article. You have found so many facets of Advent/Christmas to highlight, with a good mix of fun and the more profound.

    May I add something that my husband does? Well, it’s more a description of how he IS. He has a long and well-established affinity for and experience with “special needs” children. (He says that all kids have special needs, hence my use of speech marks.) Anyway, he has encouraged our children, from an early age, to invite such children that they know from the neighbourhood/church to special events, or to come over and play. He gently reminded the family, “You know, X might not get invited to parties that often. People are scared, and they get left out.” He told me privately that it’s very hard on the parents to see their children miss out on social invitations. (I don’t just mean stuff like Xmas, but everyday things like hanging around, coming round to play.)

  3. Pressing On says

    Those issues apply to those of us with “special” spouses too. I know very well what it is like to have a family member with disabilities that are sometimes not-so-obvious. I can’t count the times people tell me how good he looks when I know that he’s struggling on every possible front. What are routine holiday happenings to some becomes difficult or impossible for us.

    We went to a small Christmas recital this weekend, and my better half had to leave three times because he was having medication problems. Thankfully he was there for our part of the program and the reception afterwards. This is the first one ever that he has even attempted. Afterwards he was so tired though that he went to bed for most of the afternoon. So he truly sacrificed to be there with our teens.

    We always decline the holiday open houses, concerts, and local events though because they are just overwhelming and too difficult. I don’t think anyone has ever quite understood this, so I really appreciate this article.

  4. says

    Let’s remember that many adults have special needs and triggers as well. We have a close relative with psychiatric issues and have to consider what triggers her anxiety. Large amounts of the color red incites fear in her, so I don’t use my red tablecloth at Christmas. I also do not usually invite friends she doesn’t know because that makes her nervous. And we make sure she has time to go outside and smoke before dessert. She doesn’t like , and the children crowding around her. Because of attention issues, she processes information slowly so I have to not say too much or use complicated sentences. She is also in a wheelchair so we have to make sure walkways are clear.

  5. says

    Some people have hidden disabilities as well. They don’t advertise that they have problems with depression and anxiety – and the need for secrecy adds extra stress. So we need to be sensitive without being obtrusive. I liked the idea of always providing a quiet place to unwind – for whomever might need a bit of calm among the bustle. Maybe a rocking chair with soft music in another room down the hall.

  6. says

    The quiet zone is a good place for nursing mamas too. Maybe provide a changing area and a few pillows or small blankets? An extra chair so someone can keep her company. Snacks and water bottles, too!

    For small children with sensory issues, a soft quilt on the floor can protect from a scratchy carpet. Block off an area where they can play without others tripping over them.

  7. Michelle G. says

    This was an awesome post and comments – thank you. Karen, would you be willing to share a little bit about what signs you’ve noticed in your son regarding autism? And also how you handle it. My son was in special ed. until we started to HS and they said he was on the “autism spectrum”. He spoke late, had delayed motor skills, delayed social skills. He is a preteen now and I am curious if he has any further issues with this. It’s hard for me to tell because I’m so close to him – his stuff is just normal to us.
    Thanks, Michelle

  8. says

    Michelle, I wanted to be sure that you realized that this post was written by my friend, Jenny Herman, who is the social media director for Home Educating family magazine! It will be featured in the upcoming issue.

    That being said, let me say that it has only been in recent years that I have identified what I believe is Asperger’s in our son. He was delayed in his motor skills and verbal skills as an infant but I really started to see things when he was about 2. Though we had regular trips to the doctor and had him tested, there was no diagnosis of autism and really I don’t even think Aspergers hit anyone’s radar until more recently. That being said, it was really when I started watching the TV series Parenthood and realize how much our son reminds me of Alex that I could identify these things. Seriously, sometimes I want to scream at the things Alex does on that show. If any of you saw the vending machine story line, you saw a picture of my life with our son!

    A few years back I met a homeschooling mom at a retreat who shared her stories of raising kids with special needs (one with Aspergers) and I was so encouraged by her confidence that working with each individual child, patiently learning how differently he is wired than all other kids, especially the ones in my house, kept me looking for creative ways to work with him. In our son’s case, I do not believe he will ever be able to live on his own but who knows? He is vulnerable because he lacks the social understanding of what people could do to him etc.

    And I agree….our son’s stuff IS normal to us,too. I also know that how someone interacts with him is an amazing test of their character……good and bad!

  9. Susan T says

    Great article and great ideas… Thankful for all thoughtful & gracious event hosts.:)

    I always try to have foam earplugs with me for any occasion to protect a sensitive ear and to soften the cacophony of sounds one finds in so many gatherings.

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