5 ways to help kids with special needs celebrate the holidays

We want to make sure the holidays are a wonderful time for entire family! Julie Martin, Center Director of By Your Side in Schaumburg, offers parents advice on making the holidays special and stress-free for their children with special needs.

Make a calendar. 

Create a visual calendar with pictures representing special events and time off school. Special events may include visitors coming to the house, decorating for the holidays, traveling, and visiting family and friends. Anything that changes in the daily or weekly routine is helpful to incorporate into this calendar. Pictures can be found in Google images, Boardmaker, newspaper clippings, drawings or personal photographs. Be sure to cross off each day when it has passed.

Create a schedule for activities.  

Create activity schedules for special events, especially things that include multiple outings and times of waiting (i.e. go to see Santa and then go to Aunt Sally’s house). Do this by writing a checklist or using pictures to represent the sequence of events (drawings, photos). Be sure to include a way to check off when the activity is completed. If possible, use a timer on a phone or watch for things that include waiting or a dedicated amount of time.

Find fun ways to open presents. 

Opening presents can be the most exciting part of the holidays, yet all of the excitement can be an assault on the sensory system for some individuals. Try to find some fun ways to bring structure to gift opening (i.e. take turns by pulling names out of Santa’s hat) and have a safe place in the room (i.e. a pillow fort or a tent) where the child can comfortably participate. Most importantly, be aware of signs of stress from your child and give them a choice to remove themselves to a less stimulating activity.

Learn about members of the family. 

Share information by creating an “About Me” worksheet with your child. Include things your child likes and dislikes (this is helpful for gift ideas), things that are funny, and even things that are upsetting. Send the completed sheets to relatives and friends who will be part of holiday celebrations. You and your child can also use the same sheets to learn about members of the family (include pictures) so your child can become familiarized with them before the visit.

Brainstorm sensory-friendly activities. 

Structure down time with activities and events that are special needs-friendly. Many holiday preparation activities can easily become a structured learning opportunity such as baking cookies, wrapping presents, and decorating Christmas cards or envelopes.


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This article originally published on Dec. 9, 2011. It has been updated with the most recent information.

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