Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to special needs families everywhere. With the biggest holiday week of the year upon us, guest blogger Karen Jackson is here with some tips about celebrating the holidays special needs style.
Celebrating the Holidays–Special Needs Style
As the parent of an 18-year-old daughter who has autism, I have some experience getting through the hectic holiday season. In the early years, I tried to cling to what was expected and traditional; often traveling great distances to visit with family. As you might imagine, these efforts left me and the whole family exhausted. Our celebration of Christmas has definitely become more special needs-friendly and less stressful. Here are a few questions to consider as you prepare to celebrate your own faith tradition.
- Is traveling really worth it? Our December 2003 flight to California with three children in tow proved to be our last flight as Samantha, our daughter with autism, screamed and cried for much of two full flights across the country. After this disastrous experience, we encouraged our parents and anyone else to visit us in Virginia at Christmas. Our daughter is happier at home in her familiar environment. We have developed a wonderful tradition of hosting Christmas Eve dinner for some of our extended family at our house.
- Should we try to entertain friends? I am a pretty social person and absolutely love to host parties, but Samantha has not always been fond of having a lot of people around her. In an effort to compromise, I learned how to make parties more special needs-friendly for her. Every December my husband and I invite all of our neighbors and friends to our home for a come and go holiday open house. I always make sure our daughter has a caregiver or buddy assigned for the evening. This frees me up to enjoy my guests and gives peace of mind that Samantha is cared for and part of the party. We also designate an area of the house as a “no guest zone” so Samantha has a space to retreat to for a sensory Samantha actually has increased her tolerance for being at parties and now looks forward to it, spending more and more time in the midst of the party every year.
- What about a visit to see Santa? If your child is like mine, however, you won’t go anywhere near the malls or other busy places for a picture with Santa. But we found some great alternatives. When our children were very young, my neighbors asked if their friends could come visit Samantha at our house in their Santa and Mrs. Claus outfits. The first few years, Samantha would literally run from the room, she was so scared. But eventually, she warmed up to the sight of them. About five years in, Samantha cautiously stayed in the living room. After about 10 minutes, she walked over, reached out and touched his white-gloved hand. It took a mighty effort to make progress and give our kids a typical experience, but it was definitely worth it. Although Samantha is now 18, Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus still make a visit to say hello to her. Other options include finding sensory friendly Santa visits that are often offered through special needs organizations. You could even renting a suit and enlist a friend to play the part.
- Should we try to attend religious services? Houses of worship swell at this time of year. As Catholics, we try to attend the less crowded early Christmas Eve Mass, getting there very early, before anyone can take Samantha’s favorite seat. The ushers ensure we are seated so that we can see the pastor and that we are in the correct line for communion with the father she likes. Even if you do not attend a place of worship regularly, you can still enjoy attending a service at Christmas. Do some research ahead of time. Find a faith community that accommodates for special needs. Many congregations now have disability programs or ministries or even a contact person to help with accommodations. Stock a bag of your child’s favorite (quiet) sensory toys and a few snacks. Schedule in some sensory breaks also.
- How do I take care of myself? As the parent of a child with special needs, you may already be overwhelmed. My best advice is to accept your limitations and your child’s. Give yourself some scheduled breaks. The next time friends ask, “What can I do?” or “What gift would you like?” suggest they provide child care so you can have an evening of respite. Remember, you do not need to do it all during the holiday season. Try to find a bit of time for self-care. Keep exercising. Spend some time with friends. An evening out by yourself can be invigorating. Do whatever it takes to renew and strengthen yourself for the holidays.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box as you plan for Christmas this year. Decide what you might like to try, rework it to accommodate your child and your family and enjoy celebrating the holidays–special needs style.
Your Tips for Celebrating the Holidays?
Do you have some tried and true tips for celebrating the holidays? Please feel free to share them in the comment box.
Karen Jackson is the Executive Director of Faith Inclusion Network of Hampton Roads where she lives with her husband and three children in Norfolk, VA. She is also the author of the recently published book, Loving Samantha.
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