Cincinnati Family Magazine

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February 3, 2023

Keep the Holidays Managable for Your Special Needs Child

The hustle and bustle of the holidays can be overwhelming for children with special needs, but there are steps you can take to make it easier on them.

Holidays provide your family with a break from the ordinary, time spent with extended family and friends, and also a chance to reinforce traditions. However, jammed schedules and unpredictable routines, mixed with the sights and sounds of the holidays can add up to a season full of stress for your child with special needs.

“The change in routine is the biggest difficulty we have during the holidays,” says Sharla Jordan, mother of six boys (four with special needs) and author of Autism: Understanding the Puzzle (, 2011). “The unfamiliarity and excitement can lead to some difficult moments so we try to prepare our boys as best we can.” The following tips can help make your holiday season run a little smoother.


It’s all about being prepared, according to Bridget Van Patten, Certified Behavior Analyst and Lead Behavior Therapist at the Clippard Family YMCA Autism Learning Center. “If you can do a practice run, that will help relieve some anxiety in a child.” You can drive past your upcoming destination so your child can see it, and learn in advance the route you will take to get there.

Even typical holiday activities are worthy of a dry run. For example, the staff at the Clippard Autism Learning Center gives children presents to open so that kids get a chance to practice receiving a gift and to learn that there is something fun for them inside.

“Lots of kids with autism are very visual,” says Van Patten, adding that using pictures to show children where they’re going and what they will be doing can often help.


Van Patten advises that you ask your host what activities are planned for the children, and whether there’s a quiet space your child can go to when he’s overwhelmed (or a place he can run around if he needs to blow off steam). Tell your mother-in-law that your daughter doesn’t like to be hugged and not to take it personally. Let your friend know that you might need to leave in the middle of the service.

“If you know the triggers for your child,” says Van Patten, “be ready for them.” It all comes back to being prepared, she adds. Even simple things like putting up holiday lights early will give your child a chance to get used to them before heading out to another decorated home. And always be aware that your kids really are listening to you, so talk to them and share with them what is going on, says Van Patten.

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Traveling during the holidays can add an additional layer of complexity. Prepare your child as best as you can for the trip. Some children respond well to maps and photos so they’re better able to see exactly where they’re going. Talk about the steps that are involved in boarding an airplane. Again, the more you can prepare your child the smoother the transition will be.

“Bring all your child’s favorites,” says Van Patten, including a book, a toy and a snack.

Also, when traveling with your child, be aware of troubleshooting issues. Bring the name of doctors, specialists, prescription numbers, extra medication and hearing aid/cochlear implant batteries — just in case.


Extra noise and light and enclosed spaces can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to avoid the malls or traditional holiday activities like the Cincinnati Zoo’s Festival of Lights or Sharon Woods’ Holiday in Lights. “I feel like a lot of families avoid these things,” says Van Patten, who suggests that parents make a phone call to find out some of the less busy times, and to get an exact schedule of when certain activities or performances happen. She also recommends that you don’t pick a family activity that is too much of a challenge — if your child loves Christmas lights but hates crowds, a place like the Zoo is a good option because it offers so much space for you to step away if you need to.

If you’re celebrating at home, designate your child’s bedroom as a safe “noise-free” place where he can retreat. If you’re out at a friend’s or relative’s home ask if there’s a quiet spot that your child can go to if necessary. Even a short break from listening and extra stimulus can help her make it through the celebration.


As you approach the holiday season, the most important thing to keep in mind is to keep your expectations realistic. Sometimes the best way to help your child deal with holiday stress is to prioritize what’s important. “Don’t let the need drive your plans, but know your child’s threshold level,” adds Van Patten. Many parents sabotage themselves from the start thinking that they can do it all. Lighten up on the things you think you need to do, and focus more on the things that you and your family want to do to add meaning to your holiday.

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