Making the Holidays More Enjoyable for Special Needs Children

From our friends at Black Bear Academy

Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are nearly upon us, which can mean travel, time with family, and special meals. For families of children with special needs, these deviations in routine can add stress to an already busy time of year. Explore the tips below to make the holiday season enjoyable for the entire family!

For picky eaters:

  • Forecast the foods you might see and eat during different holidays by sampling these foods before the trip. Try “chaining” foods by starting with a preferred food and changing one variable (color, temperature, flavor) to expand your child’s food repertoire to include holiday foods.
  • Practice core phrases to politely refuse and request foods during family meals, such as: “no thanks”, “all done”, and “more please”.
  • Give your child a special job to help prepare the meal, such as stirring, serving, or setting the table.  This may facilitate a connection with the host and reduce anxiety surrounding unfamiliar foods by giving your child a sense of control.
  • During holiday meals, encourage your child to touch, smell, and taste new foods, but do not force it. If your child uses modified plates or utensils, bring those for use at the meal. Finally, pack a preferred meal to offer your child if he or she shows signs of distress.  

  • For conversations with unfamiliar relatives:
    Forecast unfamiliar family members attending the gathering using photographs, videos, and past shared experiences.
  • Create a “communication notebook” with your child to facilitate conversations with family members.  Use pictures and practice short phrases to provide information such as where your child attends school, teachers’ and friends’ names, interests, and any other relevant information your child might want to share.
  • If your child does not communicate verbally or participating in conversation is difficult, bring a simple activity for your child to engage in with his or her relatives (coloring pages, Legos, Play-Doh, etc.).

For traveling and changes in schedule and typical routine:

  • Reduce anxiety and meltdowns by forecasting your trip several days before it begins. Use pictures and videos to forecast your method of transportation and any changes in routine. Ask your therapist for help with social stories!
  • Use a visual schedule to preview events occurring during your trip and the expectations for each event.  Don’t forget to include “down time” each day so your child can relax in a quiet room, free from auditory and visual stimuli, with no demands.
  • Consult with your OT to support your child’s sensory regulation on the road or in the air by creating a “sensory survival kit”. The contents will depend on your child’s needs but may include ear plugs/head phones, theraputty, Play-Doh, gum or hard candy, fidgets, a heavy book or weighted blanket, and a water bottle.
  • Give your child movement breaks during travel whenever possible. Before boarding a plane or embarking on a long car ride, provide your child with opportunities for heavy work including moving luggage, push-ups, jumping jacks, and bear hugs.
  • Ask your OT about modifying sensory diets using everyday household items to support an optimal level of regulation in new environments.

Bring preferred toys and familiar activities your child enjoys keeping them occupied and happy throughout your trip!


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