It’s the holiday season and most families look forward to spending time with loved ones and friends. However, for families with children with special needs, the holidays aren’t always so carefree and jolly. Changes in routine, lots of company and even diet changes can create a perfect storm of challenges during the most wonderful time of the year. If you will be spending time with a toddler, child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Integration Disorder, ADHD, Bi-Polar Disorder or developmental delays, here are some dos and don’ts that will help make the holidays brighter for everyone.
1.When you are visiting, keep in mind that parents of children with special needs in particular, are likely to handle discipline, meals and bedtime differently than most. Don’t judge and by all means, keep your opinions about their parenting to yourself. Most parents silently agonize over these issues and you can innocently hit a hot button by offering your two cents. I will never forget the first time a long distance relative told me that my 7-year old with sensory problems just needed a good "butt whoopin".
2.Autistic children or children with Sensory Integration issues in particular, might need some time to warm up to you so don’t push it. If don’t see them very often, they might not come running up and jump into your arms. In fact, they might not even want to look at you. Don’t make a scene about it. Insisting on big hugs and kisses might make them uncomfortable so let them determine the level of interaction and talk to the parents about things you can do to soften the experience for the child.
3.Special needs children can have different developmental levels. For example, if you are buying a toy for an autistic child, talk to the parents first about the appropriate gift. For example:asynchronous development is heightened in autistic children so they may be very advanced in some ways and delayed in others. Just don’t make assumptions about ability or interests based on age alone.
4.Talk to the parents about dietary restrictions before meal planning if you are bringing food. There is a lot of research being done on the correlation between diet and developmental problems in children. Gluten and Casein free diets in addition to sugar and corn syrup restriction is not unusual. If there is a special diet request, be careful with food preparation and avoid cross-contamination.
5.If you have older children, talk to them about being sensitive. Seeing meltdowns or strange behavior might make your own kids laugh or tease (out of awkwardness). Children with Bi-Polar Disorder and ADHD can have explosively moody behavior so prepare your kids to be flexible and empathetic.
The holidays are meant to be a time that we cherish our friends and family – no matter how different they may be. In the hustle and bustle, just keep in mind that for some families, this time of year brings more stress than holiday cheer.