Making the Holidays Special

December 5, 2011
Ideas for Families of Children with Special Needs

The holiday season is a magical time for many families, but when you have a child with special needs it can also present unique challenges. Kennedy Krieger experts assembled their top tips to help maximize a child's engagement and enjoyment in the holiday festivities. While every child has their own set of needs and abilities, we hope this advice helps you in creating a season of warm memories, from preparation to celebration to clean-up. Happy holidays from our family to yours!

Holiday Preparations -- As you ready your home for the approaching holidays, you also want to consider how the variety of new experiences and changes in routine can be adapted to meet the needs of your child. For example:

  • If decorating a tree, plan to use ornaments within your child's reach that encourage interaction, such as durable jingle bells that make noise when shaken. Position treasured and breakable ornaments towards the top of the tree for their protection and your child's safety.
  • When hanging lights, consider whether your child may be especially sensitive to light and movement. Non-blinking lights and white lights are the least distracting to the senses.
  • Consider alternatives to typical holiday decorations. As a substitute to candles, use flameless or battery-operated lighting.
  • From baked goodies to fresh cut trees and candles, the holiday scents can be overpowering. Be mindful of the array of fragrances in your home and minimize them if needed.
  • Support your child's participation in cooking and baking activities. Even helping with the simplest task will increase their enjoyment and involvement in holiday preparations.
  • Use holiday card signing as an opportunity to practice writing skills. For those children who are unable to write, offer a stamp or sticker as a way to sign their name.

Holiday Events -- The holidays present many opportunities to take part in events in the community, at school, and with family and friends. It is easy to become overextended and feel as though you are rushing from one place to the next. Prioritize the events that will be most meaningful to your family so that you have time to consider ideas for making them positive experiences, such as:

  • A visit to Santa can be exciting for some and scary for others. Prepare your child by talking about the process or first watching from a distance.
  • Carefully time your visit to the mall for holiday shopping. Consider weekdays or early weekend mornings as these hours seem to be less crowded.
  • During holiday concerts, children who are sensitive to sound should be seated away from speakers. If necessary, bring earplugs or headphones for those who may need additional noise muffling.
  • Before attending holiday parties and family gatherings, let the host know of any food allergies your child may have. Another option is to bring a special allergy-friendly food alternative for your child or to share.
  • Determine if a location is accessible prior to your visit. Remember to take into account entrances, bathrooms and activity space.

Holiday Celebrations -- The preparations are done and the preholiday events are over. The holiday has finally arrived! Take the time to enjoy the day with children, family and friends.

  • Choose gifts which are developmentally appropriate, stimulating and fun. Think of your child's skill level when making your purchase.
  • Children love to open gifts. Gift wrapping should be easy to open. Think gift bags and stick-on bows!
  • Too many gifts at one time can be overwhelming. A child may be more comfortable if gift time is spread out. Allow for playtime with each toy.
  • Holidays are filled with visitors, activity and noise. Identify a special spot where your child can go to have some down time.
  • At the end of the day, take time to share the highlights of the holiday with your child.

Special thanks to Kennedy Krieger's Gayle Gross, senior occupational therapist, and Elisa Mintz Delia, assistant administrator, for compiling these holiday tips.