There are some things one can do, though, to decrease stress that special needs children, and therefore their family members, experience in this joyous time.
As important as it is to create and maintain a schedule during normal business hours, so to speak, it is crucial to do this during holidays. From traveling to and from family homes, to eating meals at odd times (think a 2 p.m. Thanksgiving “luncheon”), to disrupted sleeping patterns — meltdowns can be kept at a minimum, for parents and kids. Knowing travel dates well in advance and plans while at family homes can help prepare parents and children alike. Keeping on schedule with bedtime routines, naps, medication, important daily events (bedtime story, anyone?) can ensure that families who are affected by special needs aren’t done in by them.
Normal meals often take a back seat during the holidays, and for a child with autism, specifically, this can trigger meltdowns — which are not often welcome occurrences at Grandma’s table. Strange textures, tastes, seating arrangements — they all can tilt an autistic child’s world. Take green beans for example. Maybe the child loves green beans, but at Thanksgiving they’re presented with a healthy dose of green bean casserole. The crunchiness of french fried onions, the weird texture of mushrooms and sauce, can trigger a meltdown faster than one can say “wishbone.” A suggestion would be to have a portion of regular green beans out for the child. Offer a small taste of the casserole but also give the green beans. Some may say this is being a short order cook and spoiling the child. As a mother of a child with autism, peace is often more important than forcing a socially developmentally delayed child to eat something that causes so much distress. They just cannot stop being autistic for the sake of Thanksgiving or Christmas.
There’s just so much to see at the mall during November and December. From twinkling lights, strange sounds, gigantic trees, and oh yes — Santa Claus — the very real possibility exists that a child will wander off, special needs or not. One hint to be prepared if it happens, is to take a photo of the child upon entering the mall. If the child does indeed wander off, you have a photo of the child in the clothes he was wearing to show to mall security. Another hint is to write your name and phone number on a piece of duct tape, fold it over, and make a bracelet for the child to show an adult if he wanders off. Talking with the child and telling her to stay with you sounds great, but it often cannot compete with the sounds, lights and action of the Christmas decorations. Avoiding taking a child to the mall if you actually have shopping to do is the best bet, but by all means, take him when you can just let him be and see everything. Just because a child has special needs doesn’t mean they shouldn’t share in the excitement and wonder of Christmas.
When my kids were very young, I would decorate the Christmas tree with all breakables on the top half of the tree, and all the nonbreakables on the rest. That way, the kids could touch (you know they will; don’t fight it) and remove ornaments. I taught them to put them back and they often did. Last year my daughter Laura decided to put 20 ornaments on one branch! When she went to bed, I re-decorated the tree. She thought a Christmas miracle had occurred the next morning! You want some decorations out so the kids can touch them. Laura is fond of one nativity set in particular and would move them around. After sharing with her the story, she did a fabulous re-enactment of Jesus’ birth. Experiences like that — bringing the Bible to life — cannot happen if kids are not allowed to “play” with some Christmas decorations.
‘Tis the season…for fruitcake. And Aunt Louise’s red-lipsticked kisses. And Uncle Bob, who tells the same story over and over. And smells like potato wedges. There’s Grandpa’s brother, who just….stares…. Family really comes out of the woodwork at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Preparing your special needs children — and the family you’re going to visit — will help them understand that this too shall pass. Having said that, there’s one topic that needs to be addressed…. telling a child, especially one who has autism or sensory processing disorder, to hug someone when the child is showing all signs of a meltdown or just a “no,” should not be enforced. A “no,” especially when it comes to physical contact between a child and an adult, should be honored, special needs or not. Kids have an innate ability to sense the adults they want to hug — and those they don’t. It just may be because Great-Granny smells like cheese, and that is okay. If a child does not want to hug an adult — let it go (please don’t sing)…the child may warm up to the family member after a while and give non-coerced hugs. Which are the best kind of hugs, really.
Oh, gifts. My son Sam has been known to rip open a present, discover clothes, toss them aside then ask where the real gift was. Talking with the child in the form of a “social story” can indeed help the child know what to do and say regarding gifts. Practicing this at home beforehand can help too.
Treating the myriad social graces as educational exercises will enable the child to learn them. You don’t just thrust a subtraction worksheet at a child who’s just now counting apples and expect him to know what to do. You teach him. More than anything, be sure to have fun with the child and share with her the joy and wonder of the holidays — and therefore lay the groundwork for a future talk on the real Meaning of it all.
Keep your Thanksgiving organized with this Thanksgiving organization and kitchen pack:
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