Special needs guide on preparing for the Holidays


It’s the most wonderful time of the year until your kid doesn’t feel like being hugged by their grandparents or relatives and has a meltdown. Or your child gets overwhelmed with all the new people, sounds, aromas, around him, or she is out of her routine daily routine. This is more common for parents of children with special needs than we care to admit.  I have been down this path before, either because we travel to be with relatives or they have come to spend the holidays with us.  Talking with other parents and relatives eased my mind that I was not the only one that went through this and I wanted to write some of these down to share.

So what can we do to make the holidays as happy as possible for your kids and ourselves

Routines/Schedule events

  1. Make a list of the things you want to do this year. There are always more things that we want to do than we have time for, so first, be realistic about how much time you have.
  2. There are many applications (if you want to go that route) that can help relatives/kids know what is going to happen during the day. Some of our kids are too little for this so letting them know what you have planned may help them be ready for the activity.
  3. Some of us are less technical and can do this as well with a calendar. Using something visual to show children what will happen during this short period of time may help diminish the lack of control some of our children feel when moving from one activity to the next.
  4. Make these activities teachable moments. For example, if these activities happen outside, you can ask your kid to make a list of the things he/she will need. If the activities happen inside or at someone’s home, they can make a list of things they might need to bring.  One of the things I keep hearing from parents of children that don’t like their routines changed, is to try to keep their night-time routine, especially bedtime, as unchanged as possible.



This is a biggie, especially for those of us that want the Norman Rockwell Christmas picture or to do what our parents used to do when we were little. We need to make sure we are realistic about what we can do and how much we can do. Some of us would love to have a real tree in our homes, but just the introduction of a new fragrance may be too much for some of our kids.  And then there are family expectations, know what is flexible and what is a deal breaker and talk it over with your spouse or partner. There may be a time when you may need them to back you up or take the lead in nixing plans that you had with your relatives.  Let your partner know where you will need support, what kind of support your need, and likewise where they need your support and on what occasions.


Suggested gift lists

One of the worse feelings in the world is to watch your kid open a toy that you know they will not be able to play with. Having said that, even worse is when you see your child struggle to open a gift and try to put it together when you know they cannot do it. So how can you prevent this from happening, well, be honest. Be honest with yourself, your friends and your relatives. Make a list of the things your kids would like and share it with those who have asked. Consult catalogs, therapists, teachers and even the Differently-Abled Toy Guide like the one from Toys R Us to find things you may be able to suggest for your kid.

Pre-prepare for gift opening

Just like before, prepare for gift opening. I heard from a mom that said that she would open the gifts she was going to give to her child with Cerebral Palsy so she would not have to fidget with trying to open the box and put the toy together. She and her husband would pre-assemble all the gifts so that her girl could just go right into enjoying the gift. She also shared it also helped to make sure they had batteries for the toys. Another mom I talked with said that Christmas lasted for two days in her house because her child did not want to open the presents, so the family took their time and opened one gift at a time, took pictures and enjoyed the extended gift opening.

Mother helper/Santa’s Elf

A mom friend of mine shared that she hired a mother’s helper to be with her son at any activity she had at her home. This person would be there to pay attention to her son, make sure he had food, was comfortable or had the things he needed while they had company. Additionally, if he got overwhelmed by the activities, he could go to his room or to a quiet place and the mom could still enjoy her company.

Escape plan or Christmas code

Some of our kids can handle crowds and gatherings for a little bit of time, others for a longer time. You could think about giving them a code word or a code card that they can give you when they feel that they are becoming overwhelmed with the people or activities that are around them and assure them that you will respond right away. This can help reduce their anxiety and give them some control over the situation.

Tell your story

“Let me tell you about my kid’s special needs before we visit your home”. Most of us would not go to a place where our kids are not welcomed or that is new for them. However, this might happen during the holidays when we visit relatives or aunts or uncles our children hardly ever see and vice versa. This may be a good time to introduce this family to your child and the disability that affects them and how it makes them different and the same as other children. Garner their support so you all can enjoy the company and the time together without having to walk on eggshells.

Elopers and escapees

When our daughter was younger, we were always concerned with making sure the host was aware that our girl loved to escape. One of my friends said: “They are really faster than you know, especially when we combine grownups and kids, they can slip thru the cracks.”   Another mom I know always packs a couple of stair gates and door knob locks to help prevent her son from escaping or accessing areas he should not go into.  In addition she said she always put a ribbon that had jingle bells to make it easier for her to keep track of her child.


Some of our children have their preferred colors, fabrics, smells, so why would this be different around the holidays? Not all clothes are made the same and our children can feel it.  A parent I know brings several outfits (tops) for her son to choose and then brings the pants. This way they become part of his “collection” for the holidays. She lets him wear them so he can get the feel for them before she wants him to wear them. “It actually worked well last year so we are planning on doing it again. There was one time where he did not want to wear any of them so we didn’t even make a fuss over it.” She reminded me: “Stick with what works, those little nuances are important to our kids, nobody else has to understand, just you and your spouse.”


Does the child need to follow any diet restrictions? We should not expect the hostess to know these things. I usually call the hostess and let her know that our daughter has diabetes and that I will be bringing a sugar-free option for her.  This is also important when your child has food allergies. Remember, tell your story.


Bring supplies

Most parents I know carry a “Mary Poppins” bag. They can pull anything they need at the right moment in any place they are. That should not change during the holidays, especially when we are far away from our children’s comfort zone and they are not surrounded by things that are familiar to them or comfort them. This may be the time when we carry extra clothes, extra head phones, ear plugs, special blanket, special toy, batteries, snacks, wet wipes; anything we may think will enable our children to feel comfortable in their new environment.

Don’t overbook –

Sometimes this is easier said than done. We all have commitments that we have to comply with due to work, family, school, church; the key is to do what you can. Understand people want to celebrate the friendship they have with you and your family.  I had a friend who hosted an open house for their kids friends and they do it early in the season so they can have family time the rest of the holiday season. They invite all of their kid’s friends and parents for cookies and milk/cocoa and they play games and sing carols. Everyone brings a gift that is donated to a toy drive and everyone leaves with a bag of cookies.

Check for manners

In most homes children both big and small are expected to act in a certain way. Why not have a quick family meeting before you leave for any activity and review what expectations you have for everyone’s behaviors. You can remind them gently to use their ‘Please, Thank you,” and the way in which they address adults.  Make sure they know what is a deal breaker. This may benefit even your neuro-typical kids as well.


However you celebrate this holiday season, we wish that your holiday is merry and your New Year is bright, filled with love, health and joy.  We would love to hear if you used any of the suggestions we shared and how they worked for you.





Luz Adriana

My name is Luz Adriana Martinez and for the past 27 years I have been working in the field of advocacy for children with disabilities. I hold an MBA from the University of Phoenix and a BA from the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico.

I’m married to a great guy, Tito, an Army Veteran of 22 years, who supports all the crazy things I do. Being an Army wife also prepared us to be always on the move and without daddy for long periods of time. This also gave me the opportunity work and volunteer with organizations whose mission was to assist other military families. This blog results from my desire to give back to the many families that have given me and mine so much. I have had the fortune to be able to travel the world assisting military families and now that that stage of my life is over, I want to continue to share what I have learned in the hopes that I can still provide some information and resources to families who need it.

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  • Karen Elliott on December 8, 2016


    I really appreciate how you put so much thought into your blog. You have a gift.

    • Luz Adriana on December 8, 2016

      Thank you Karen. Do you have anything you want to share with our readers? Feel free to share.

  • Alice Gerard on December 9, 2016

    This is really great information. I learned as an adult that I have auditory processing disorder, sensory processing disorder, and hyperacusis. When I was a kid, I thought that I was defective and was misdiagnosed as “emotionally disturbed.” I would not want other kids to go through what I did. If I can help even just one kid by telling my story, it is worthwhile to do so. I would suggest, as someone who is very sensitive to sound, that the volume of the music be kept fairly low and that people should try to avoid playing music that is too high pitched or screechy because that could hurt some very sensitive ears. Crowds and flashing lights are probably not plans that work well for kids with sensory processing disorder. Some kids need extra stimulation. They might like those giant balls that they can sit on and bounce on or they might appreciate a bear hug. Every kid is different and the fact that you are focusing on kids’ sensory needs is really wonderful. Thank you so much!!

    • Luz Adriana on December 9, 2016

      Alice, thank you for you wonderful feedback and for sharing your story with us. I am so glad you found this informative.

Thanks for the comment. Anything else we should be talking about?