These may be the ordinary marks of special occasions, yet sadly, the word most families raising a child with special needs might associate with holidays is stress. The noise, the lack of structure or routine, the unfamiliar surroundings, and the special food can all create complete havoc for a diagnosed loved one. Couple that with the inevitable comments and criticism from family or friends, and some families actually dread holidays.
With such diametrically opposed views of special occasions, how do those with a child who has a disability ever reconcile with the extended family's expectations of holiday fun? The good news is that with some foresight, planning and good etiquette on the part of everyone, an enjoyable time is within reach.
For family extending holiday hospitality:
- Be sensitive to your guests of every kind. Simply stated, treat your guests as you would want to be treated. If you had a broken leg, you would be grateful for assistance into your host's home and a quick seat where you can relax. The same may be true of a niece, nephew, cousin or grandchild. If that child has sensory issues that affect sounds, lights, or food, accommodate him or her with a quiet space in your home where they can go to regroup with their parent with a toy or something else you know they like. Make sure to serve a favorite food and drink. Perhaps, ask the parents ahead of the party how you can make the time together the most comfortable.
- Change your expectations for that child's participation in the usual activities of the day. Depending upon ability level, a child may not be able to join in everything you have planned or even stay at the party as long as you would like. Remember, much of what goes on with someone who has special needs is not visible to the naked eye. Try to include as much as possible, but be flexible. Perhaps plan one activity that you know the child with challenges really likes or is especially good at. Definitely take any mobility issues into account.
- Be kind with your words. The worst thing you could do for yourself and your guests is to make judgmental comments during a holiday visit that is supposed to be happy. When you cast aspersions on parents and their children with challenges, you make yourself an annoying fool. They will have no desire to return to your company any time soon. Realize that there is much you do not understand, and build others up rather than insulting them at a family occasion.
- Plan ahead. You know your child. You know their limits. Plan around what you know. If your child has food sensitivities or special requirements, bring the appropriate food with you or discuss it with the host. If the noise will be too much, pack ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones. If the entire event will be too overstimulating, limit the hours you will be at the gathering. Get creative in making adaptations.
- Grow a spine, rehearse your words, and plan to explain if you must bow out. Oftentimes, children with special needs do poorly with extreme temperatures. If the family is planning a holiday celebration outside and the temps are nearing 100 degrees, tell your hostess of this challenge. It is better to deal with the difficulty head-on than to be miserable and have a scene that escalates at a party.
- Expect ignorant comments when you are at a family gathering. Prepare your mind to be thinking "They don't know what they don't know," if etiquette is breached. Even if someone is knowingly rude, remember that they are only one emergency room visit away from being you. And you never know when that might happen. Two of my more verbally unkind and judgmental sister-in-laws ended up being mothers of special needs children themselves eventually. Although they would never say it, they would likely feel pretty embarrassed if they had to come face-to-face with those comments today.
- Establish your own holiday traditions. Are the fireworks too unnerving for your child? Maybe your family wants to watch from a distance where the noise isn't a problem. Would you prefer to blow bubbles or pinwheels rather than attending a parade? Make some special time together to do just that. Whatever you choose, make it your own to make your holidays joyfully memorable. That will minimize the impact of other family demands you may feel on these occasions.
PRAY: Father, you set forth feasts and holidays as times of holy remembering and great rejoicing in Your Word. Help these occasions to be more special for us than they are stressful. Grant us all a respite from our daily woes and stress to come together in celebration and relaxation. Remind us to treat one another as we would wish to be treated. And leave us with only treasured memories when the holidays are done.