The Holidays and Your Loved One with Special Needs
By Sheryl Frishman, Esq., Littman Krooks, LLP
Holiday time can be a very difficult time for families with special needs loved ones. The change in routine, excruciating amounts of down time, travel, visiting family and friends, attending functions, too much noise, and too much food etc. etc. etc. Being a mother of a child with significant special needs, I have developed some coping mechanisms that have helped my family survive the holiday season as unscathed as possible. Also, it has allowed me to and my special needs family to enjoy the season much more.
Here are some tips that have helped me:
Do Not Over Schedule
It is tempting to do a lot of visiting, attend many gatherings, and try to get in many activities during holiday time. However, this may be too much for your special needs loved one. Personally, I feel that it is better to have one successful experience rather than many stressful and difficult ones. Additionally, if my son needs to be on his best behavior for an activity, I make sure he has plenty of non-stressful time before and after an event to just be himself.
Bring Your Own Food & Supplies to Gatherings
If your loved one is picky eater and there is a risk of tantrums, difficult behavior, and stress if his or her preferred food is not at a gathering, bring your own supply of preferred food. Further, if there are certain items that will help calm your loved one, make certain you bring them to all gatherings. For example, an iPad, books he or she enjoys, weighted vest, etc.
Offer to Buy Gifts
My family and friends always worry so much when it comes to buying gifts for my son with special needs. In order to alleviate this worry, I always buy my son's gifts prior and give them to my family members to wrap and give to him. This takes the stress off my family members that want to buy my son a gift and also ensures my son will not act out if he opens something he does not like or understand.
Try to Build in as Much Routine as Possible
Although it is hard, I really try to build as much routine as possible over the holidays. For example, I keep a consistent bedtime and wake up time even over breaks. In addition, I try to keep similar limits that I set during school. For example, in our home "screen time" remains limited, reading routines stay in place, and meals remain around the same time.
Ask the School or Program for Activities You Can Work on At Home over Breaks
It is also a good idea to ask teachers or therapists for activities you can do with your child over holiday breaks. This can help you establish a routine and can also help you see what your loved one is working on and whether they are generalizing the skills.
Take Two Cars
It is always a good idea to have an escape plan for holiday activities. My husband and I always bring two cars to gatherings or activities, so one of us can leave if our child with special needs is acting up. This way our other children can remain, if they wish, and our child with special needs can go home where he feels more comfortable.
Plan Activities where there is Not an Expectation that Your Special Needs Loved One Has to Behave
I always try to plan activities that our family can do together where there is not an expectation that my son behave. For example, each Christmas, my children dress up like elves and visit local group homes. We go to the dollar store prior and wrap presents and visit group homes where people with developmental disabilities are not with relatives on Christmas. This allows our family to "do good", have a fun Christmas activity, and my son with special needs can be himself on these visits with no worries. My children all look forward to this activity each holiday season!
Try to Schedule Ample Help
If possible, I try to schedule extra help to assist me during the holiday season. This extra help may take the form of a "mother's helper" someone to come along with us to activities and gatherings or a babysitter to watch my son with special needs when there are activities that I want the rest of my family to attend but that would not be a good fit for my son with special needs.
I always avoid activities where there are huge crowds. As much as possible, I do my holiday shopping online to avoid the busy malls. If I need to go to something that will be crowded and that I know my child with special needs will not enjoy, like our yearly trip to see the Rockefeller Christmas tree, this is a good time to use a babysitter.
Use the Time with Family to Discuss Plans for the Future
Holiday time is a wonderful time to discuss your plans for the future for your loved one with special needs. It is a good time for your extended family members to see, first hand, what it takes to raise your loved one, and you can use these family gatherings to discuss, guardianship and other special needs planning ideas you may have.
One thing that forever upsets me is when I get parenting advice from people who think they know better than me how to raise my child and deal with his behaviors. Personally, this happens for me often during the holiday season. I try as hard as I can to not lash out at these individuals for the sake of my son. I also try to use these moments as teachable moments. For example, I was recently at the Bronx Zoo with my son and a group of young students started mimicking his vocalizations and hand movements. While my instinct was to yell at these children for being so rude, instead I spoke to their teacher about my son and what his students did and explained what Autism was to them.
Take Time for Yourself
I can't stress the importance of this enough. This helps you be a better parent. If you spot me alone in a movie or getting a manicure and pedicure, this holiday season, you will know that I strongly take my own advice!
Keep Expectations Reasonable
We all tend to have high expectations for the holidays and want them to be "perfect" family times. Don't get frustrated if the occasions don't go as planned. Just cherish the time you do have any make the best of it. For example, if your child with special needs cannot handle a large family event on a certain day, plan something special for just the two of you and enjoy the time alone.
Count Your Blessings
While it is so hard to raise a loved one with special needs and you may wish that you could just have a "normal" holiday season and not worry about all of the above, holiday time is also an important time to try to realize all of the gifts you have received for having a special needs loved one. For example, I do always take time to realize that I have become a better mother, a more patient person, and a better advocate in my career to help families with special needs, all because of my son. This makes me feel very lucky indeed.
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