I look forward to and dread the holiday season in a “hard to reconcile” dichotomy that is common among parents of children with special needs.
Personally, I love everything about the holidays — the decorations, traditions, food, and company all feels nothing short of magical.
At the same time, I am also a parent to a child who has complex medical and emotional needs, which has changed what our holidays look like immensely. We often have to say no, make hard choices, and decide what’s practical to do instead of what we would prefer to do in an effort to keep our family healthy and happy.
We are thankful to have supportive extended family members who, over the years, have really gone above and beyond to understand and empathize with our situation and make us feel comfortable in their homes.
If you have a friend or family member who has a child with special needs this holiday season, there are some practical and easy ways to help support them without adding a lot to your own to-do list. Even if you choose just one of these things, I know I’m not only speaking for myself when I say it makes us feel seen and loved just a little extra.
1. Invite us.
Even if you know or suspect we’ll say no, invite us anyway. We still appreciate you thinking of us and wanting to spend time with our family. Try to remember it’s most likely not personal if we turn you down.
2. Give us a call ahead of time.
If we’re unfamiliar with your home, safety is probably our biggest concern. Giving us a heads up if there are any pets, if you have a pool, if your house is on a busy street with a door that easily opens, etc. helps us be as safe as possible.
3. Find a quiet space.
Let us know if there’s a quiet space we can utilize if our kiddo needs a break. Having access to television and comfort items (blankets, pillows, etc.) we can utilize in a “sensory emergency” is incredibly helpful. A break space usually allows us to stay at the event a little bit longer.
4. Be interested!
Ask us ahead of time about some of our child’s favorite things to play or talk about, especially if you are nervous about being able to find common ground with them. We appreciate it more than you know.
5. Level with us.
It’s probable that our child won’t sit with 30 other people at the same time at dinner, “behave” through a religious service, or be patient while opening gifts. They might not tolerate a fancy holiday dress, special shoes, or an adorable little bow tie. Try to empathize with us and understand that this isn’t happening because we’re “bad parents.” Offer us an alternative when it’s possible.
6. Send us some pictures.
For us, the more predictable something is, the better, and a social story (or preview of what will happen) makes the event much more enjoyable. Even though it might feel weird, pictures of just about everything help our child feel safe and organized.
7. Have fun!
Our life is mostly chaotic, but it’s still beautiful. As a family, we try to take in and enjoy the happy moments when they come to us, and we would love to share them with you.
Please remember that these are things that work best for our family, and they might not be applicable to everyone. All kids are different, including kids with autism and other special needs. Happy holidays!