A Holiday Survival Guide for the Special Needs Mom


I’ve just recently come to accept that holidays look a little different for our family. I think in years past I tried really hard to force a “normal” holiday experience but always came away discouraged. I wanted my child to greet all family and friends with a smile and a hello. I wanted him to play kindly with everyone without a tantrum. I wanted him to stay seated at the table and eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Easy, right?!

Oh, but wait, my son is autistic with many, many sensory aversions like crowds, loud noises, lots of smells, different places, different eating times, people he isn’t used to seeing regularly, and routine just totally off. And all the food? Yeah, right.

It’s not so much that these gatherings would go catastrophically bad, it was what we paid for after the fact. The recovery. The coming down. It wreaks havoc on my child, and much of that was due to my unrealistic expectations and not meeting him where he is. I wouldn’t set him up for success. And, if I’m being honest, a lot of that is because I care too much about what people think.

Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole will never fit. That peg will either get so pounded down that it becomes distorted and dented, or that round hole splinters and cracks and is no longer round. Damage is done. Something or someone gets hurt.

With that being said, here is my advice for making the holidays a little easier if you have a child with Sensory Processing Disorder. I actually wrote this advice for myself to hold myself accountable, but I think it will help you as well. Keep in mind, these suggestions may need to vary based on your child’s specific needs.

Here are 15 things going in my bag of tricks this year:

  1. Headphones. Praise be to God for headphones! Transitioning, loud noises, and crowds can be extremely overwhelming and overstimulating. Noise reduction/canceling headphones can help drown that out to help your child stay calm.
  2. Social Story. Many kiddos, special needs or not, respond so much better to pictures. You can find all kinds of social stories online, specifically about holiday events. You can also create your own to make them super personal for your child.
  3. Pictures. Have pictures ahead of time of family or friends that will be at your gathering so your child isn’t caught off guard and are already familiar with who will be there.
  4. Practice makes perfect. If you are dead set on your child having traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas food, maybe do a few practice rounds at home before.
  5. Bring your own food. This is key for us. Forcing my child to try foods he’s unfamiliar with, along with everything else that’s unfamiliar, isn’t a battle I’m willing to fight. Instead, we will bring his favorite foods with us, that I know he’ll eat. But, I also requested my son to choose two foods he will try at least one bite of. He has agreed to cranberries and corn. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m going with it.
  6. Comfort item. What is something your child loves that brings them comfort and security? A stuffed animal? Fidget toys? Books? Bring it!
  7. Sensory Brushing. If brushing works well for your child, be sure to pack that brush. Find a quiet room to do the brushing while there.
  8. Tablet. Gasp! How dare I? What kind of mother am I? One that wants to survive the day and not eat my feelings with pumpkin pie. Seriously though, if your child’s tablet helps them stay calm, cool, and collected, then bust that bad boy out!
  9. Comfortable clothes. Don’t try to force your child to wear something that is so far off from what they typically wear. Again, we just have to pick our battles. Comfort is key. And while you’re at it, pack yourself some stretchy pants. You’ll thank me later.
  10. Safe space. Find a spot that can be a quiet zone just for your child. A big thing we try to get our son to communicate is letting us know when he needs a break. Find a place where they can do that.
  11. Reward system. I’m going the ABA method here. Positive reinforcement works wonders for our child. Have a goal and reward settled with your child. Make it attainable for them for that particular day. Nothing too demanding, but enough to make them work for it. As for a reward, maybe it’s a piece of chocolate, maybe it’s a favorite place to go after the gathering, maybe it’s extra TV time. Whatever motivates your child, do that.
  12. Be prepared for comments and questions. Not everyone gets it. Not everyone understands. Not everyone wants to understand. Look at any question or comment as a teaching opportunity. Open their eyes and mind to see beyond just what they know or think they know. That’s how awareness is raised and ultimately that’s how change happens.
  13. Celebrate even the “smallest” of milestones. No milestone is small at our house. Listen, if my child takes a bite of corn or cranberries, I’ll probably pee my pants with giddiness, and he will know how proud we are of him!
  14. Grace to arrive late, grace to leave early, and grace to not attend at all. However, this year looks for your family, know that it’s okay. If you arrive late, it’s okay! You’re there! If you need to leave early, it’s okay! You made it! If this isn’t or still isn’t the year for you to attend, it’s okay! It doesn’t mean forever, it just means for now. You can still have a wonderful day with your family.’
  15. Grace for you. I don’t care who you are, holidays can be stressful and difficult. Add a child with special needs? You’ve just increased that by about 1,000. Give yourself grace during this time. If things look different for you and your family, just remember that God makes no mistakes. He has you where He wants you for a very specific purpose. And sometimes that means just staying home and loving your baby the way that they need. Sometimes that means having a “bag of tricks” to help your child thrive. Sometimes it means having hard conversations to bring some awareness. No matter what, give yourself grace. Give your child grace. Keep trying, keep moving forward and keep your expectations realistic.

You’re not alone. You’re loved. Your child is loved. Your family is loved. No matter the difficulty, there’s always something to be thankful for and I pray you feel that this holiday season. 

What would you add to this list? 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here