Five Tips to Help Children With Special Needs Through the Holidays

Julie Mower is Executive Director of The Phoenix Center, an accredited non-profit, private school that serves nearly 140 students ages 5-21 with autism, multiple disabilities, behavioral and intellectual disabilities from roughly 60 districts in eight New Jersey counties.

As 2020 comes to an end, there’s one thing we can count on: the holidays will be different this year. Families might not get together, safety precautions will be greater, but the holiday cheer will be brimming all the same. COVID will make travel and family gatherings more complex, but at the heart of this season is your child, looking forward to snow, gifts, and holiday treats. 

Nonetheless, this can prove a more taxing December for children with special needs — the stimuli of the sights, smells, and sounds of the season can be stress-inducing even before worries like COVID come into play. To help parents better cope with this time of year, here are some tips specific to children with special needs to make this season safe and bright. 

1. Host a Zoom Holiday

Visiting families will likely be more difficult this year — but that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Travel around the holidays can be hectic and expensive, yes, but this year, due to COVID, family travel will be limited. Instead, to keep older relatives safe and keep your children with disabilities connected with extended family members, host a Zoom holiday. Get together virtually, and make an event out of it: perhaps everyone unwraps a present over Zoom so relatives can see each other enjoying the holiday season. This type of virtual celebration also provides for individuals with disabilities to enjoy at their own pace, adjust the volume of the participants and take a virtual break, when needed without disrupting the festivities for all.

2. Keep Traditions Alive in a COVID-Friendly Way

Despite the barriers the pandemic brings, there are lots of ways to maintain beloved traditions for families and children with special needs. Decorating gingerbread houses, getting in the car to drive by holiday lights, and watching favorite wintertime movies are all safe, indoor, and cherished ways to celebrate the holidays. Especially during this time, consider modifying treasured family traditions so that they can be enjoyed safely. 

3.  Enjoy Dinner with the Immediate Family

Gatherings have been smaller this year, and your holiday meals may be no different. Children with special needs may actually appreciate this: holiday dinners, restaurant outings, and catered meals can sometimes be anxiety inducing. Instead, enjoy this season and its smaller, more intimate family gatherings by catering to your family’s food preferences. A meal of family favorites may be a nice way to make your holiday dinner special, while steering away from disliked/unfamiliar foods that can lead to stress and anxiety for children with special needs.   

4.Take Advantage of Downtime

It’s not every year we get to have more special time with family and take a break from the holidays’ fast-paced environment. For one, this unique season may allow families to avoid busier stores and areas. Aside from the risks of indoor crowds and COVID the sensory overload of a bright and busy shopping center can be very challenging for children with disabilities. It might be helpful to use the time you would be traveling to and from stores to do some online shopping with your child instead. Pajama-day celebrations, holiday movie nights and hot cocoa parties can be enjoyable without the stress of typical holiday hustle and bustle. Even with the downtime, keep in mind that many individuals with disabilities benefit from a clear schedule so they can anticipate what’s to come. 

5. See Santa — Virtually!

For many children, visiting Santa is a big part of the festive season. This year, seeing Santa at the mall will likely not be an option, but you can still get creative while maintaining this tradition. Go old fashioned, and write Santa a letter! You can also visit the Santa Tracker online to see what the North Pole is up to and play games with elves. Some malls are even doing virtual visits with Santa so your child can get to see him online. The big thing to remember this December is that though the circumstances may be different, the cheer and holiday spirit don’t have to fade. 

What do you think?