Article Dec 21, 2016

Navigating the holidays as a family with special needs

The holidays are a hectic and fun time. Most of us push through until a normal routine picks back up in the new year. But there are some families we often overlook—those who struggle with the frequent interruptions of the season because of parenting a child with special needs. Adjusting to change can take a bigger toll on their families. So, I asked Louise Reed, a wife and mom of four, to offer some advice and encouragement to those families who find themselves wondering how to help their children thrive during the hustle and bustle.

Lindsay Swartz: Tell us a little bit about your family and your experience with special needs.

Louise Reed: We have four children, three boys and girl. One of our sons has autism—what many people know as Asperger’s Syndrome. He was diagnosed when he was 11 years old. He’s now 19 years old and lives one-thousand miles away at college. We currently have a 25-year-old son whose job keeps him on the road year-round, a 22-year-old son who just graduated from college and works in the area, a 15-year-old daughter who is a sophomore in high school.

Swartz: What advice would you give parents of children with special needs during the craziness of the holidays?

Reed: The holidays can be stressful to all of us, but especially to those who thrive on routine. Children (and adults) who enjoy structure can struggle when things are out of the ordinary. During the holidays, there are extra events, parties and late nights, and the regular daily routines are disrupted. There also may be guests in your home who may cause things to be different from “normal” for your family.

I would suggest you prepare your family as much as possible for what to expect. Create a holiday calendar of events, and ask each family member if there is anything special they would like to do during the season. You can also make a meal plan. My son, who has Asperger’s,   always wanted to know what was going to be for dinner. By creating a meal plan for the week, he didn’t have to ask; he could check for himself. If there will be gift-giving, talk about what that will look like—will everyone open gifts at once, or will people take turns and watch others open gifts? The more significant the disruption, the more important it is to prepare in advance.

Swartz: What practical things have you done to try to keep a routine, especially for your son with Asperger’s?

Reed: One of the biggest things is trying to stick to a regular bedtime and regular meal-times. Nothing can make us grumpier than being sleepy or hungry! While it’s hard to do when there are parties to attend and guests in the house, it will benefit everyone. It’s also helpful to have certain plans or traditions that are just for your immediate family—things that you can “control” as much as possible and that can provide a dose of familiarity to an otherwise crazy schedule.

Swartz: We often expect the holidays to be merry and full of cheer, but that’s not always the case. How have you found it most helpful to manage holiday expectations?

Reed: The best way to manage expectations is to first find out what the expectations are. Once you know there is an expectation something will happen, then you can do your best to make it happen or talk about why it may or may not happen. We all experience disappointment. It isn’t our job as parents to make sure our kids are never disappointed, but it is our job to help them learn to handle it in a healthy way. And, for kids with autism or other special needs, sometimes we have to anticipate what those disappointments are going to be in order to help them deal with them in the best way possible.

Once you have prepared for changes and made plans, it’s also very important to stick to those plans as much as possible. “Rules” and plans are expected to be followed, and changes to those plans can cause significant anxiety. If the plans must change (which we know they often do), take a deep breath and give as much notice as possible, explaining that you know it’s a change in plans. Try to let them be a part of the decision as much as possible.

Swartz: If a child with special needs does have a difficult time, how would you advise parents to respond?

Reed: If you sense that your child is headed toward a meltdown or is becoming overwhelmed, take him or her away from the setting for a little while to allow time to decompress, if at all possible. We found that the heat of the moment was not usually the best time (what I really want to say here is “never”) to try to talk about it or reason things out. Our son needed time to cool down and think things over for himself. When he had done that, he was in a much better frame of mind to discuss the situation and how he might behave better next time.

Swartz: How do you attend to your other children throughout the holidays so that they don't feel overshadowed or left out?

Reed: I mentioned the calendar before. Let everyone be a part of event planning if they are old enough to pick something they want to do together. Take time to cuddle and talk, eat meals together, stop and listen to what they have to tell you. Slow down. Enjoy the holiday season and let your family enjoy each other. If it means you don’t do so much, then let it be so. Help everyone in the family understand that you are a team. And, know that sometimes you will fail, and that’s OK. God is big enough to comfort you and all of your children through the struggles.

Swartz: What are some of the unique joys and things the Lord has taught you through raising a child on the autism spectrum?

Reed: We have learned that each of our children is a unique blessing from God, created and gifted by the Creator. Our autistic son has taught us that sometimes we try to move too fast; we should slow down and enjoy life and family. He has also taught us that people are not always what they appear to be. Whether struggling with a hidden disability or maybe just having a really bad day, we are all much more complex than we look on the outside. All of us are truly created in God’s image, and everyone we meet deserves to be treated with respect as his image-bearer.