Holiday Tips for Kids with Special Needs (Part 1)
Holidays bring joy and family traditions that warm the hearts of many.  For those of us who have children with special needs, the holidays take on an entirely new dimension.  Like everyone, we have shopping, cooking, decorating, and preparation.  However, there are additional ways in which we must ready our children for the holiday season.  Children who have autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, and self-regulation difficulties need some assistance to navigate the holidays.  Here are some tried and true strategies that I personally use and recommend to my clients.

Today’s post will cover FAMILY GATHERINGS and SHOPPING!! 


Family Gatherings

1) Utilize relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. Social stories can help with anxiety. Whenever possible, use actual pictures and rehearse as much as you are able.
2) Create a “safe zone” to which the child can go whenever they feel overwhelmed. Set a password or sign that your child can use to excuse himself.  Place a bean bag, calming music, a heavy blanket, and a favorite hand fidget toy in the area. Practice ahead of time.
3) Use calming scents such as vanilla during the party. Essential oils can be calming in scents such as lavender. Encourage your child to choose scents prior to the event and keep them accessible.
4) Create a letter to family members prior to family gatherings to explain your child’s wonderful progress toward goals and suggestions for conversation topics. Be sure to give a list of his strengths and topic of interest. For example,
     “Joshua’s had a wonderful year in therapy.  He’s learned how to tie his shoes, take one turn during conversations, and how to write in cursive.  Joshua likes Angry Birds.  Here’s a link to the Angry Birds’ website if you’d like more information.  Please know that even though he’s not looking directly into your eyes, he IS listening to you and loves you!”
5) At mealtime, make sure to serve a preferred food so that children who have feeding difficulties can successfully participate.  Encourage positive conversation during family mealtime. Holiday dinner is NOT the place to try a new food as children can feel pressured and embarrassed if they react negatively. 


Read our earlier post here for FREE conversation starter cards!

6) Rehearse the family’s names and match them to their picture. We practiced family recognition beginning in November. When the child is familiar with the person’s name, add the family member’s interests such as favorite color or food, occupation, or hobby.




We are all familiar with the chaos and stress that ensues at the malls and stores during the holidays.  Scents, bright colors, and music can be extremely overwhelming to anyone, and this can be significantly magnified when a child has sensory processing difficulties.  Even standing in long lines can prove to be extremely uncomfortable for kids.

1) Allow children who are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of shopping to stay home. Ensure that the child is comfortable and familiar with the sitter. Allow kids to have a pajama and movie night while you’re shopping.
2) Children enjoy giving gifts, but if they cannot go to the store, purchase a few gift items for family members and set up a store at home. We call ours, “Santa’s Workshop.”  Our boys choose a gift for the family and they go to the “wrapping station.” Help the kids to wrap and decorate the gifts with markers or stickers.
3) If a child must attend the shopping trip, schedule downtime or breaks for children to de-sensitize.  This can be located in the car with some crunchy snacks, a weighted blanket, and some calming music.
4) Keep organized and ask children to help you create shopping lists. Permit the child to mark off completed tasks and errands so that he has some control of the situation.
5) Encourage children to make a list of preferred toys well in advance. Give family lists of toys to choose from.  I even purchase the toys my children will enjoy and provide them to my local family members ahead of time. We sometimes have a “trunk sale” and everyone chooses which give they will buy and wrap for my boys.  

Calm-Down Kit included over 100 cards! Break ideas, breathing cards, and emotions cards.


With some preparation, rehearsal, and a positive attitude, a successful holiday season is possible.  Remember that memories are long-lasting and even short periods of success are welcomed by everyone.  Slow down and remember what’s important!


Want MORE tips?

Check out our Holiday Tips Part 2

and Holiday Tips Part 3


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Many people struggle with sensory processing difficulties. Regulating emotions, knowing when to eat, drink, go to the toilet, and feeling your breathing and heart rate all depend on our internal awareness.

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