Holidays As A Special Needs Family

Holidays can be stressful enough for families. With the stress of cooking for the big holiday meal, getting everyone ready and out the door on time, and traveling, there are enough challenges as it is. But what about holidays as a special needs family- how is it different?

With Thanksgiving coming up tomorrow, I thought it would be a good time to talk about how holidays with a special needs family member adds a whole different level to preparing for and celebrating holidays. For some, it means ensuring a safe place to go if your little one needs time away from the hustle and bustle. For some it means preparing a special dish or dishes to make sure your child can/will eat. For some it means celebrating at home with immediate family only, because the noise and activity of a house full of people is just too much for your child. And for some, they go about the day as if any other and don’t make any special allowances or preparations. There’s no right or wrong way to celebrate holidays, but I thought I’d talk about how holidays go for us and our little family.

For us, it means calling ahead to make sure any dogs present will be put in a room or kennel away from everyone, or having a place Sawyer can go to be safe from any dogs present. Most of my family members who host holiday gatherings have dogs, so this is something that’s not easy to avoid. Since Sawyer has an irrational fear of dogs, it doesn’t matter how small or calm the dog is; if there’s a dog around at all, it will send Sawyer into a terrified panic, so I try to avoid it at all costs. I hate to have to ask family members to put their dogs away, but I’m very lucky that our family is very understanding and great about accommodating our requests. I will be honest, though- it makes me feel like we are an imposition, sometimes; I don’t like having to ask people to change the way they do things in their own home just to accommodate us. 

It also means I make certain dishes to make sure Sawyer will eat something, since his sensory aversions make him unable to tolerate a lot of holiday foods. Like a lot of people with autism, Sawyer also has sensory processing disorder (or sensory integration disorder). Some people don’t understand that kids on the autism spectrum don’t eat certain things because they physically can’t; smells, textures, and taste sensations can be a lot for those people. Some foods can be physically painful to eat or the smell can be nauseating for their sensitive taste buds and noses. For instance, Sawyer doesn’t eat much bread because he can’t stand how it sticks to his teeth and the roof of his mouth, so he rarely eats rolls and the smell of foods like stuffing can make him feel sick because the spices in it are so strong. Sawyer is getting a lot better about trying new things as he gets older, but he still will usually only eat a little bit of turkey or ham and maybe some corn or green beans; he hates just about everything else usually served at our family gatherings. Knowing this, I usually bring dishes like whole kernel corn and a dessert I know he loves so I know he’ll eat and just accept that even if he eats more dessert than anything else, at least he’s eating something (pick your battles, folks!). 

I don’t make Sawyer dress up for holidays. Yes, I’d love to put him in an adorable little pullover sweater and jeans and have everyone talking about how cute he looked and how handsome my little man looks in his dress clothes, but I know how much he hates to feel restricted in his clothes. He hates shirts with tight cuffs, and he doesn’t like to layer clothes much. He’s gotten better about wearing denim, but he complains that the fabric is stiff and scratchy on his skin, so we normally buy sweatpants or these awesome fleece pants from Children’s Place that he loves for him. In the winter months he prefers to wear a tshirt with a zip up hoodie over it, with sweatpants or his fleece pants. At events where he needs to dress up, we usually stick with dress pants and a polo shirt, but for holidays I just let him wear what he likes. I’d much rather him be comfy and happy than force him to wear something that hurts him or makes him uncomfortable all day long.

One other issue we run into is sensory overload. In a family as big as ours is, it can be a lot to handle; it’s always loud and there’s always a lot going on in any room at any given time. There might be 5 conversations happening in the same room, with people laughing and talking loudly to hear each other as the kids play around us. We are a loud, loving, and funny bunch and I wouldn’t trade our family holidays for anything, but when Sawyer was little, I dreaded them a little bit because I knew there was the possibility that Sawyer couldn’t take it and we’d have to leave early. Sawyer has come a long way from where he was when he was first diagnosed with autism. When he was younger and still non-verbal, I had to watch him carefully for signs he was getting overstimulated which usually meant he’d get really hyper for a little bit and then he’d start to enter the warning signs of a meltdown; he’d start with zoning out for small periods of time, before finding a place to try to hide and he’d curl up into this little ball, trying to draw into himself. If I saw him doing that, I knew I needed to move him to someplace quiet quickly, before he had a full-blown meltdown. These days, Sawyer can tell when he’s getting overstimulated and he will tell me he’s had enough of a particular environment. Having a quiet place where he can go and play on his tablet helps a lot, but when that is not possible, he will come tell me “Momma, I’m overwhelmed. I’m ready to go.” It’s not always ideal or convenient, but it is what it is. I’d rather leave an event early than have to deal with a meltdown with so many people around and worry about Sawyer hurting himself or someone else. 

For holidays like Christmas, we have changed up the way we open gifts. We used to put each kid’s presents in a pile and let them just start tearing into the presents all at once. We learned very early on that this was too much for Sawyer, so we changed it up so that now we take turns letting each person open one gift at a time. We go around the room in order from youngest to oldest and let the kids open their gifts one at a time. So Sawyer will open one, then my youngest daughter, then my nephew, and so on. It takes a lot longer this way, but it’s also nice to build up a little more excitement and anticipation. The kids get a little impatient sometimes, but they get why we do it this way, too. 

I know several people with children on the autism spectrum who don’t make any special allowances for their child on holidays. They want them to understand that sometimes they will be forced to be in situations that may be different than what they’re used to, and they can’t always escape it or have special treatment to make it easier so they have to learn to regulate their emotions and find ways to deal with all the sensory stimuli. I understand this, totally, and I have definitely explained to Sawyer that sometimes the world will not make allowances for him and he needs to try to find ways to cope if he’s getting overstimulated or overwhelmed. However, I prefer to make holidays as much fun for the kids as possible so we can make fun memories. If that means doing things a little differently to help Sawyer have a good day with us, then I’m all for it. But I definitely understand the other side of it and don’t judge. Every child and family is different so the way we celebrate can be very different from others. 

As a bonus, I’ve updated the Stuff We Love page with a link to the recipe for Sawyer’s favorite dessert! In our family it’s called Cherry Yum Yum, but everyone I know who makes it calls it something different. This recipe is a little different from mine (I just make a traditional graham cracker crust), but the filling and topping are the same. This is a recipe I learned from my ex mother-in-law and has become a staple at family gatherings over the years.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I hope you have an incredible day, no matter how you celebrate. ♥

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