POSTED ON DECEMBER 22, 2010:
Thriving During the Holidays
Helpful tips for families of special needs children
With planning and a positive attitude, the holiday season can be something to which every family can look forward
Between partying over turkey on Thanksgiving, decking the halls and bringing out the Menorah there is no shortage of big doings in the holiday season. Many parents and children embrace these events with gusto, but for parents of children with special needs, the happenings can create significant disruption and spark some serious trouble.
"Around here we usually hold our breath in October and don't exhale until January," says Barbara Street, a parent of one special needs child, 10, and two neurotypical kids, 7 and 5, respectively. "If it's not one thing at this time of year, it's most definitely another."
Street is not the only parent grappling with what she's labeled "Holiday Frenzy." All over the country, other parents of children with special needs find themselves in the same difficult situations.
The challenges associated with holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years can be overwhelming for a family with special needs. The sounds, sights, and schedule disorders during this season can be difficult to manage. Yet with planning and a positive attitude, the holiday season can be something to which every family can look forward.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around most families of children with special needs have managed to survive the Daylight Savings Time change and Halloween. As with those two events, sensory integration disorder continues to be the big issues in households. If a house full of company is not enough of a distraction, hard-to-explain decorations such as burning candles on the mantle, well-intentioned visitors and pine trees in the living room undoubtedly are.
Add to these the disruption of time off from school--and, therefore, time off from in-home therapy--and the stretch from Thanksgiving through New Years can be downright difficult.
Still, a few minor tweaks to holiday rituals can go a long way. Here are five tips to help you thrive:
• One Size Fits One: Ease your child into the big family gatherings by introducing him or her to one or two relatives at a time (instead of everybody all at once). Some parents also send family members a letter beforehand with some suggestions about how to make the child feel most comfortable.
• Rely upon an old tradition: the kids table. Set up a table for the kids, so your child does not have to grapple with the stress of sitting with the grown-ups, yet still feels like part of something special.
• Set up a safe escape: in the house for your child to go if he or she just wants to be alone and tell your guests ahead of time that Johnny is encouraged to exit at any time to his safe place, even if it is in the midst of a conversation.
• Be Creative: If you have a tree during Christmas, decorate it in such a way that satisfies your kid's curiosity. In many cases, this might mean utilizing small stuffed animals instead of ornaments. In other cases, it might mean nothing but plain white lights and strands of cranberries and/or popcorn. Tree decorations are supposed to be subjective," "Who's to say you can't get exceptionally creative for the benefit of your child with special needs?
• Forgo Traditions: Keep the focus on family time and don't be hesitant to discard traditions or decline invites that just do not work for you and your family. Instead, spend your time creating experiences that do work.
Sheryl Young is the Chief Executive Officer of AbilityPath.org an online resource and community for parents who have children with special needs. In addition to her role with AbilityPath, Sheryl also serves as Chief Executive officer for one of the nation's largest and oldest non-profits, Community Gatepath whose mission is to help turn disabilities into possibilities. You can download AbilityPath's holiday guide at www.abilitypath.org.
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