Changing Holiday Traditions for My Son With Special Needs

Tradition is the focus of Christmas celebrations for many families. There’s a desire to share the experience that you had as a child with your own child. Christmas can be about going to certain events or seeing family that you are rarely able to visit. Christmas is very hectic and chaotic for many families who are trying to fit in all of the fun in 25 days, but when you have a child with special needs, this can be impossible.

My family has many traditions that we have practiced since my childhood. Before Christmas, we visit with Santa and see the Nutcracker Ballet. Our Christmas Eve was spent at my grandmother’s house, followed by midnight Mass. Christmas day, we returned to Grandma’s house after opening presents. The time was fun-filled, with lots of visiting with relatives, but very hectic, and little sleep. Then my son was born.

My son is diagnosed with autism, anxiety and ADHD. His needs have required us to carefully plan our holiday season. My son is fearful of large crowds, unexpected noises, some loud sounds in general, heights and escalators. He is unable to wait in long lines. He is very particular about what he will eat. He requires us to keep a routine, explain changes in advance, give lots of breaks for quiet, introverted time and keep a regular sleep schedule. Our Christmas traditions had to be adjusted.

Celebrating with the Community

Living in Toledo is a blessing. There are many organizations who now recognize that individuals with special needs want to participate in activities, but need accommodations. For instance, several places now offer a “soothing Santa” experience. Individuals are able to see Santa in a more quiet environment. Some places allow appointments to be made and others offer sensory items to pass the time while you wait. All are understanding of any meltdowns or special requests that are made.

The same is true of the Nutcracker Ballet, a holiday favorite for many. There is now a special showing in a smaller, more open theater for individuals with special needs. The number of tickets sold is limited, so people who are anxious with large crowds are able to see the ballet as well. Those who attend understand that the guests may speak during the showing or wander through the aisles.

Celebrating at Home

For Christmas itself, the key to a successful, enjoyable holiday for our family has been recognizing that there must be limits and there must be routine. We still see Grandma every Christmas Eve, but we have had to change our schedule to make it fit into my son’s routine. We go to the early Mass, then to Grandma’s house. We pack his favorite foods, so he is able to eat without having to search for something on his menu. We stay only two hours and make it home at his usual bedtime.

His schedule is written on a board the night before and discussed with him. We highlight the times that he will have for his own interest (video games) and which times he will need to work through (Mass). Most importantly, we changed our routine to allow him to have Christmas Day for himself, at home. All are welcome to visit us, but we no longer rush off to see others. Knowing that he will be asked to do little on Christmas Day helps him to make it through the bustle the day before.

All children with special needs are so very different in their needs. However, I think all parents of these children can relate in one way: there are needs that must be met. For our family, advanced planning, special experiences in the community which are developed for my son’s needs, and a schedule that works with his routine, have made our holiday season more enjoyable for all. I hope these suggestions will help your family as well. Happy Holidays!

Aurora Dayne is the chairperson of the Family Advisory Council at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital where she works to foster communication and relationships between patients, their families and caregivers.