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Enjoying the holidays: 9 tips for families of children with special needs

Episcopal Center for Children, a Treatment and Special Education Center in DC, Offers Advice

child-with-parentsThe holidays can be fun, but they can add stress to the lives of children with special needs. The Episcopal Center for Children (ECC), a nonprofit organization serving children with special needs ages 5-14 in the greater Washington, DC area, offers the following tips to help.

“Children with special needs enjoy the holidays but they are especially sensitive to the changes in routines that the holidays bring,” said Dodd White, president and CEO of ECC. “Making a plan and adjusting your expectations can go a long way to creating a positive holiday experience for the entire family.”

Tip #1 – Make a plan for the holidays and share it with your family. Create a schedule for your family’s holiday activities and post it for your child to see. You may need to use pictures to help a young child. Talk about the schedule with your child, so he or she can anticipate what will happen. Review the schedule weekly. Also discuss the schedule with others in your home, so they understand what is going on and how they can best support your child with special needs, so everyone can have a fun holiday.

Tip #2 – For holiday gatherings, give your child a job and a schedule. Ask your child to help collect coats, give out treats, or greet arrivals. Rehearse the plan. Give your child a schedule for a festive occasion so he or she knows what to anticipate.

Tip #3 – Maintain routines as much as possible. There may be special activities for the holidays, but try to keep your child’s schedule as close to “normal” as possible.

Tip #4 – Eat healthy foods and know how new or special foods impact your child. During the holidays there are all sorts of fun foods and treats to enjoy. Some children are more affected than others by dietary changes. Pay attention to your child’s moods and how diet and situational changes may be impacting him or her. Bring along with you food that is familiar to your child if you think it may be needed.

Tip #5 – If your child is sensitive to unfamiliar smells, help manage them. You can add a little cinnamon to play compound to help a child experience this smell minimally. Ask guests visiting your home to not wear heavy perfumes if your child is sensitive to them.

giftsTip #6 – Get your child into the spirit of the season through gift giving. Gift giving provides an opportunity to practice social skills. Help your child make a gift for someone else, and practice how to give the gift to that person.

Tip #7 – Take breaks when needed. Sometimes children need a break from the hubbub of holiday activities and busyness. Fill a bag or backpack with a few favorite toys, games or activities. If you see your child is getting stressed, get out the bag and find a quiet spot to get them out.

Tip #8 – Do not allow presents to be a hindrance to enjoyment. Some children with special needs find it dis-orienting to unwrap things that are new and unfamiliar to them. If that is the case for your child, wrap a few favorite toys for your child to unwrap. Children who have trouble with fine motor skills may find unwrapping some gifts frustrating. You can adjust packages to their comfort level by loosening ribbons and paper. And ask others who give your child gifts to be aware of his or her needs.

Tip #9 – Give your child the gift of your attention. Holidays can be busy for grown-ups and children. Make sure you spend a few minutes of quality time with your child. Give him or her your full attention. Practice active listening, where you listen to what your child is saying and then repeat it back to them to demonstrate that you were listening.


Content Provided by  the Episcopal Center for Children
The Episcopal Center for Children (Center) is a nonprofit, nondenominational school and treatment program for children contending with emotional challenges from the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Accredited by the Joint Commission, the Center serves children who are 5-14 years old in grades K-8. The goal of the Center’s treatment, therapeutic milieu, and individualized special education program is to empower each child to function productively within his or her family and community. Building on strengths within children, the Center partners with families in treatment and focuses on enabling its students to access and become their best possible selves. More information is available at eccofdc.org and on Twitter @ECCofDC.

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