Sunday, December 1, 2013

Celebrating the Holidays with Special Needs Children

Trees, lights, decorating cookies, shopping, visiting family, school vacation, wrapping and opening presents, singing traditional songs of the season, and church services...

The best things about the holidays, right?

We all have our favorite part of the holiday season.  It usually comes wrapped with childhood memories of what was or what we wish had been.  We try to recreate scenes from Christmas past.  Capturing those great pictures of the kids for Christmas cards.  Surprising people with gifts on Christmas morning.  Visiting Santa and watching favorite Christmas movies on TV.

For children with special needs, all or most of the above may be very difficult and not enjoyable at all.  My dreams for the season are often not my son's dreams.  He is 7 years old and in the autistic spectrum.  Every year, I'm surprised by how much he struggles during the holidays.  Just this year, I spent some time crying at a coffee shop as I took a break from trying to cook for Thanksgiving.

As I try to regroup, these are my thoughts...

1. Anticipation and Surprise
For most of us, anticipation and surprise is what Christmas is all about.  But for my son, anticipation feels like anxiety.  He prefers to know what is coming.  He likes a predictable schedule.  He can seem "off" from before Halloween until after Christmas break.  "Off" could look like meltdowns, crying at small things, wanting to be constantly close to a parent, or wanting to be isolated like under a "tent" in his room or behind a chair.

** One thing we have tried is to ask Joshua if he wants to know the "schedule for the day" even when school is out.  This let's him know what unusual things may be in the schedule, or what usual things are cancelled because of the holidays.  Sometimes we ask him if he wants to draw out or write out his schedule.  Other times, he just wants to hear it. Here is an example of a visual schedule.

**Joshua wants to know what he is getting for Christmas ahead of time.  Yesterday, he and I ordered his gift together over the internet.  Now he feels good that he is getting something he will enjoy, but he doesn't have to manage that nervous energy until Christmas morning.

**You could also develop a social story like the ones at this link.

2. Crowds, Commotion, and Loud Noises
There is a lot more activity during the holidays than other times of year.  Even at his "typical" activities like fencing and school, there are Christmas songs, concerts, and his school even takes all the kids to a store to buy toys for charity.  These activities can be overwhelming because of the noise, scents, bumping, and bustling.

At any time of year, Joshua can be loud and physically active; however, sometimes this is most noticeable when he is actually overwhelmed.  When he is crashing through the house and can't stop, I know he is having a hard time.  There was a time when I thought he needed to "run off" this energy, but now I know that he most often needs help with calming during these times.

**He may need us to set up a quiet place like an indoor tent.  He can go inside and watch videos or play an app on a tablet. Try these ideas for creating a cozy resting place.

**Deep pressure and proprioceptive input can be also be calming and centering.  Try these sensory strategies OR these!

3. Diet

Holidays often have lots of treats, traditional dishes, and a deviation from normal diet.  In addition, Joshua follows a gluten free, casein free (dairy) diet to help manage his autistic symptoms.  Joshua typically does best when he has enough protein and very little simple sugar as well.  We try to cook healthy and organic as much as we can, but still have treats for Joshua at every holiday and special occasion.

**Joshua eats a lot of healthy foods, but he often rejects new or unusual foods.  Many of the traditional holiday foods are out of our typical routine (e.g., most of the Thanksgiving dishes).  While I may be working very hard to make stuffing, gravy, etc. Joshua often wants his usual dishes.  Or, he may ask for holiday dishes because other kids talk about them, but then often reject them when they are on his plate.  This Thanksgiving, Joshua ate coconut milk ice cream and that was it.  He rejected each of my Thanksgiving offerings.  I have to just anticipate that he may want his usual foods; I need to choose which ones I will make in combination with a few holiday dishes for us.  

**We try to really focus on protein and healthy eating, so sugar rushes don't add to his symptoms and struggle.

4. Little Bits at a Time
**We try to enjoy little bits of the holiday at a time.  Our church holds Christmas service during the week before Christmas, so we are able to go to service and then not plan anything else that day.  

**We don't have family in our area; rather than driving 8 hours to see family and stay in their home, we opt for a quieter holiday in our own familiar setting.  

**We spread out his presents across multiple days, rather than opening all the presents Christmas morning in a flurry of craziness.  So, he opens one large present on Christmas morning (of course he already knows what it is) and then across the following days, we dole the rest of the small presents over time.  

5. Take Care of Ourselves

As I was crying in the coffee shop this year, I remembered that taking time to myself is really important.  I can't do it without breaks and a chance to regroup.  So I either need a to find a babysitter, a willing neighbor, or take turns with my husband to get out of the house and breathe.