Ah the holidays, such a busy time. From preparing enough food to have leftovers for weeks, to gift shopping for family and friends, there are lots of tasks and traditions that come into play. There is no doubt the holiday season can be overwhelming for the average person; now, imagine those feelings times 10—that is what it feels like for a child with learning differences.
I say this from my own past experiences, as someone who has received what feels like a lifetime of special education services. I’ll just get to the point and say I’ve walked the walk. And now, my warrior parents, I’m writing this article as an accomplished 24-year-old, and I can proudly say made it out on the other side of the system.
With a Master’s Degree in Literacy Education, I am here to talk the talk. I am by no means saying my way is the right way, but I have some useful tips from my experiences as a child who was considered a “special education student”. My intention is to help your child have a more comfortable and less overwhelming holiday season. What works for some may not work for others, because I know that children on the spectrum have more differences than similarities. Therefore, please take my advice and alter it to meet your child’s specific needs.
Show up to parties early
The first tip I would like to share with you, is to make sure you and your child show up to a party, holiday, or any get together prior to the arrival of other guests. One of the residual effects of my learning disabilities was my inability to deal with change. If I’m being honest, it’s something I still struggle with to this day, but I’ve learned some tools and tricks to help me become more adaptable.
Five-year-old Claudia would get overwhelmed and cry if she walked into a room with a large group of people: seeing everyone at once was too much to process. I couldn’t accept that kind of change so quickly, and being greeted by so many people was overwhelming. My loving parents taught me to be proactive rather than reactive so, they did exactly that. My parents made sure we always arrived at a function early, so I could slowly adjust to people arriving to the party one at a time. I then had an easier time adjusting to the change of environment, and the gradual increase in the number of people arriving.
I’ve used this tool throughout my life because, quite honestly, it gives me much more comfort. For example, even in college I tried to arrive at classes a few minutes early so I could slowly view each student as they entered. Your child will feel more comfortable and mentally prepared arriving to a function earlier and seeing the slow transition of people’s arrival.
I also emphasize the importance of preventing unwelcome surprises that might end up having a negative impact on your child. For example, don’t throw him/her a surprise party because your child might feel fearful as it’s something unexpected. Moral of the story: arrive early and prepare your child for who and what’s to come.
Preparation is key
In addition to arriving early, it is important to prepare your child for any surprises that may arise during the holiday season. Please allow me to share an example from my childhood to explain this point. My diagnosis included neurological and sensory issues, along with auditory processing delays, some of which I still struggle with today. With this being said, unfamiliar characters (people dressed up in costumes) and loud noises would make me jump and cause my anxiety to skyrocket. So, every Christmas when my big Italian family would go to my grandmother’s house for Christmas dinner, and my 6 ft 5 uncle would dress up as Santa Claus and come “stomping down from the chimney”, yelling at the top of his lungs, “HO HO HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!”, I cried like a baby. This went on until the 4th grade.
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The craziest part is, once my parents sat me down and spilled the Santa secret, I still hid in the basement the year after because his loud voice and character was just too overwhelming for me. It wasn’t until my uncle showed me how he put on the Santa suit over his clothes, and I saw my uncle, step-by-step, transform into “Santa”, that I had an easier time adapting to this holiday tradition. I know I could’ve just stepped out of my grandmother’s house every time he came, but I don’t believe in living in fear. I share this funny experience with you all, to reiterate the main point: preparation is key. If your child is going to someone’s house for an occasion, and someone is dressed up in a costume or there’s someone there that’s unfamiliar to your child, please make sure to tell him/her in advance.
In addition, I suggest, if the event is taking place at a venue, you take a trip there in advance. Since it’s a new environment for your child, he/she will take comfort in knowing what to expect. However, if it’s too far to take a trip, look up the venue online and view pictures to familiarize your child with the destination so he/she knows what to expect and feels more at ease. Although these pieces of advice are aimed for the holiday season, they can also be applied for events all year round.
Now, I realize not every child was like me, crying over surprise birthday parties and having anxiety attacks over their uncle dressing up in Santa suits, but many children on the spectrum struggle on a daily basis with change, loud noises, people in costumes, and visiting unfamiliar places – just to name a few. Add the holiday season into the mix, and it can be extremely stressful for both you and your child.
Hopefully, these are tools that you can teach your children, and they can continue to use in their everyday lives as they get older. I say this as someone who has used these tools throughout high school and college, and as someone who continues to use them as a young adult. This has helped me make a smoother transition in each new chapter of my life.
I believe in you, my warrior parents. Always remember: YOU know your child better than anyone. You know what is part of his/her learning disabilities and what is part of his/her personality traits. Make sure to never get the two confused, trust your gut, prepare and plan accordingly, and have a very happy holiday season.
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood