We can’t promise you a stress-free holiday season any more than we can promise you a white Christmas, but there are some common sense tips which can help children with disabilities (and their parents!) make it to the end of the holiday season relatively unscathed. We call them the Five “P”s
We should stress – no pun intended – that when you mix family gatherings, religious or cultural traditions, crowds, noise, lights and sometimes travel, no one is immune to the stress. It’s not just a child with autism who may become over-stimulated or a child with a physical disability who may be exhausted or frustrated. The annual holiday season “melt-down” is to be expected from children of all types and abilities, and maybe some grown-ups too.
The key is managing expectatons. Knowing what is most likley to cause stress for your child during the holidays and having a plan for that eventuality is the easiest route to minimizing problems.
It starts with preparing both your child and your family for what’s to come. Start early with holiday stories, books and movies to help your child understand what it’s all about. Practice traditions in small doses such as a trial-run at a formal sit down dinner with just the immediate family before you add in aunts, uncles and cousins. Take a trip to church or synagogue and explain what will be different about the ceremonies during the holidays. Play holiday music around the house or experiment with lighting candles if that will be something new for your child. If your child uses a walker or a wheelchair, practice navigating through Uncle John’s house or whereever you are likely to spend time during the festivities if you can.
Then have a solid plan for when things don’t go as expected. Set up an escape route or a safe space so the child can retreat if things get to be too much. Let your friends and relatives know that this isn’t a big deal and there’s no need to make a fuss if your child needs to take a break. Bring a favorite toy from home, a snack, or an iPad to offer your child when they don’t want to – or can’t – go with the flow. Reassure your child that they can take a break anytime they wish and go over how to do so – maybe even set up a code word so your child can signal you that they are having a hard time without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Make sure there is a way they can participate. Scope out venues and ask about holiday gathering plans ahead of time to find a way for your child to be included in the festivities to whatever extend they feel comfortable. Will they be able to be placed at the same table with everyone during dinner? Will they have a good view of the holiday pageant? Will they be included in games with other children? Figure out how this can happen and prepare any necessary accommodations ahead of time.
Be sure to have everything necessary for your child to be as comfortable as they would normally be at home. Don’t force outfits that are itchy, or dress shoes that are tight just for the sake of appearances. And, don’t expect them to stay up far later, walk far further or stand or sit far longer than they normally would just because it’s a “special occasion.”
Don’t rush. And, don’t overbook! Tell your relatives and friends that you expect them to be flexible. If you miss the beginning of services or don’t stay for dessert, that is just a fact of life that isn’t going to ruin anything. For a child with a disability it may take longer to get ready, or to get from one place to another and things will simply have to go at a slower pace. The more relaxed you are about time, the more relaxed your child will be as well. After all, the season is about so much more than gifts and parties. It’s about celebrating together as a family – a family that includes a child with a disability.