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Navigating the Holidays as a parent with special needs children

by Ashley Allen, MA, BCBA, LBA and Elizabeth Coriano, MA, ABA from Carriage House

The Holidays are among us. We are making shopping lists, putting up decorations and filling our schedules with family activities. Excitement is in the air! However, if you are the parent of child with special needs you may be feeling everything except excitement during this busy season.

There are many challenges that special needs families face when it comes to the holidays. From changes in routine to large family gatherings, there can be so much uncertainty. Our advice is simple…relax, enjoy the moment, and do what works for you and your child!
If you do plan to attend holiday gatherings, here are some tips that might make things a little easier for you and your child.

  • Prepare your child ahead of time. Make certain that your child is aware of the changes to their regular routine. Using a visual schedule is an easy and simple way to do this. If you are going to grandma’s house for holiday lunch, add that into the routine. This schedule can be as simple as a written list or as elaborate as photos. Choose what works best for your child.
  • Set realistic expectations. It may not work for your family to visit with distant relatives for hours after dinner and that is ok! Talk to your family members ahead of time and explain to them what you feel will work best for your child/family and feel confident with your choices. If your child doesn’t typically eat dinner at a table don’t have the expectation that they will do so during the celebration. If possible, make a plan with the host prior to arriving so that everyone is on the same page.
  • If you have a picky eater, be sure to bring the foods you know they will eat. Maybe instead of eating the delicious meal prepared by the host, your child eats their regular chicken nuggets and other preferred snacks and that is ok too! Adjust based on how to best meet the needs of your child in this unfamiliar setting.
  • Provide a safe space for your child to escape so that they can deescalate or take a break, if needed. Many times children get overwhelmed and overstimulated when celebrating the holidays, especially if it is in new and loud environments. Bring some of their favorite toys or sensory items with you and allow access to those items to help with this process.


Most importantly- HAVE FUN! This time of year can be very stressful for everyone so make sure you are taking a step back and enjoying this time with your child and family.