Critter Corner: Making the Holidays Comfortable for Loved Ones with Disabilities

Dear Oakley,

My teenager with ASD and my child with Down Syndrome will be experiencing the holidays with our extended family — cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. We are expecting 25 people this year, for the first time since before COVID. We have also been invited to a few gatherings at friend’s houses and at church. Do you have any tips on managing the holidays with my children with ASD and Down syndrome? Thanks so much for your help and Happy Holidays!

Holly Dayze

Dear Holly,

The holidays can be challenging for a family with children who have ASD, Down syndrome, anxiety, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and other diagnoses. Holiday light displays, blaring Christmas music, and the hustle and bustle of shopping in the mall might be okay for some kids, while for others, it is one big sensory nightmare.

Even if your holiday doesn’t look like one from a Hallmark movie, you can adapt your expectations to make the holidays calmer and enjoyable for all.

Here are some things you can do:

  • Identify your child’s triggers: You probably already know what triggers your child. It could be a particular environment — such as a house that is overcrowded and too warm. Maybe it’s the time of day that a holiday celebration is held, which coincides with your child’s bedtime or dinnertime, or maybe the event occurs just as their medication is wearing off. Identifying your child’s triggers will help you plan your holiday season. Once you identify what could cause potential struggles for your child, plan to avoid these triggers as much as possible.
  • Learn what tools or techniques help your child to cope: Figure out what works to make your child feel calm, happy, and comfortable. Perhaps it is noise cancelling headphones or ear buds playing their favorite music to drown out noise, chewing gum, or a fidget toy to help deal with anxiety. Comfort items can be helpful (such as a favorite stuffed animal), as well as making sure your child is dressed in comfortable clothing. If you must take holiday photos, bring a cozy change of clothes for your child to put on right after. Outdoor time that allows for gross motor play can also help a child stay regulated.
  • Plan to keep your child well-fed, well-hydrated, and well-rested, even if this means saying no to certain events, arriving late, or only staying a short time.
  • Be clear about what your family needs: You don’t need to apologize for meeting your child’s needs. Even though traditions can be fun and nostalgic, if it’s going to result in a major meltdown, it’s not worth it.
  • Prepare your child in advance: Visual schedules or checklists are very helpful for kids who need to stay on a predictable schedule. When you arrive at a holiday gathering, take some time to establish a quiet space (one you’ve pre-arranged with the host) where your child can go if needed, such as a spare bedroom or hallway. You can also come up with a code word for kids who may either need a break during a holiday event or absolutely need to leave. Don’t wait for a problem and then brainstorm solutions; be proactive. Empower your child to have a say in how their time will be spent, and what helps them feel safe and calm.
  • Consider alternatives: Your child shouldn’t be obligated to attend every holiday event that interests you, especially if it’s stressful for him or her to do so. Decide if it would be better to get your child a babysitter, if you can skip some of the less important events altogether, or get a hotel room instead of staying with relatives in their home. Ask yourself what’s going to be best for the whole family so that everyone can enjoy the holiday season to the greatest extent possible.

Hope this helps!


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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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