Managing Fall Frenzy



Autumn can be difficult for parents of children with special needs. But it doesn’t have to be.

Between dressing up for Halloween, changing clocks back for Daylight Savings Time and partying over turkey on Thanksgiving, there’s no shortage of big doings in autumn. Many parents and children embrace these events with gusto, but for parents of children with special needs, the happenings can create significant disruption and spark some serious trouble.

“Around here we usually hold our breath in October and don’t exhale until January,” says Barbara Streett, a parent of one child with special needs, 10, and two neurotypical kids, 7 and 5, respectively. “If it’s not one thing at this time of year, it’s most definitely another.”

Streett isn’t the only parent grappling with what she’s labeled the “Fall Frenzy.” All over the country, other parents of children with special needs find themselves in the same difficult situations.

Love, Laugh & Live: The Emotional Side of the Holidays

We’ve consulted our experts to provide this closer look at some of the biggest challenges of fall, along with some suggestions on what you can do to make the season a little easier for everybody involved.

Remember, every child is different, and there’s no flow chart for how this works.

The overarching goal: Be flexible, and remember that no tradition is more important than the comfort and happiness of your kids.

Enduring Halloween

Hands down, the biggest challenge of the season also happens to be the first: Halloween.

Here, most problems stem from sensory overload. The costumes! The candy! The decorations! Simply seeing dozens of people out and about in the neighborhood after dark can send a child with special needs into a state of confusion.

Starting early is a great way to prepare your child for this potentially scary day. Deanne Kelly, an occupational therapist with Community Gatepath, recommends purchasing a costume in early September, and allowing your child to wear it once every few weeks to get comfortable in it. If the costume has a hat and other accessories, introduce those gradually, over time.

And if your child doesn’t like certain types of costumes or accoutrements, don’t push them.

“Listen to your child,” says Kelly. “A lot of times you can overcome problems with costumes simply by planning ahead.”

Another great strategy to cope with potential stresses of the day: Stay close to home. If, after 15 minutes, your child makes it clear that he or she has had enough, go with the flow and call it a day (or night).

If you’ve got multiple children, assign one spouse to your child with special needs, so in the event of an early night, the other kids can stay out and fetch more candy if they desire.

Finally, practice trick-or-treating so the actual event isn’t overwhelming for your child. Researchers call this type of warm-up a “discrete trial,” and note it’s a great way to establish familiarity with the act instead of focusing on the fact that the process is something new.

Managing Daylight Saving Time

Another big challenge of the season sneaks up on all of us: the end of Daylight Savings Time. This year we turn clocks back Nov. 7 and life gets a lot darker from then until March.

Most children adjust to this change within a few days. For children with special needs, recalibrating the body clock generally takes weeks or months, and the transition often has physical as well as mental effects.

Some parents overcome this problem by gradually setting their clocks back in 15-minute increments in the month preceding the end of Daylight Saving Time. Another parent added that she also has juggled her son’s schedule so he’s still engaging in after-dark activities (such as, say, brushing his teeth) once it’s dark. Such gradual adjustments can help a child with special needs cope with the time change.

Surviving the holidays

xmas-photoLast—but not least—are those challenges associated with holidays like Thanksgiving and (eventually) Hanukkah and Christmas.

Much like Halloween, the problems here revolve around sensory integration disorder. If a house full of company isn’t enough of a distraction, hard-to-explain decorations such as pumpkins on the porch and pine trees in the living room undoubtedly are.

Add to these the disruption of time off from school—and, therefore, fewer therapy sessions—and the stretch from Thanksgiving through Hanukkah and Christmas can be downright difficult.

Still, a few minor tweaks to holiday rituals can go a long way.

  • Ease your child into the big family gatherings by introducing him or her to one or two relatives at a time (instead of everybody all at once). Some parents also send family members a letter beforehand with some suggestions about how to make the child feel most comfortable.
  • Rely upon an old tradition: the kids table. Set up a table for the kids, so your child doesn’t have to grapple with the stress of sitting with the grown-ups, yet still feels like part of something special.
  • Set up a safe place in the house for your child to go if he or she just wants to be alone. Therapists recommend that this room should not have any decorations or any changes that the other rooms may feature because of the holidays.
  • If your child can’t handle burning pumpkins on the porch (or a cackling witch on the front door), forego them. Traditions such as lighting the Hanukkah candles or burning the Yule log may need to be adapted for your child or replaced with another tradition.
  • If you have a tree during Christmas, decorate it in such a way that satisfies your kid’s curiosity. In many cases, this might mean utilizing small stuffed animals instead of ornaments. In other cases, it might mean nothing but plain white lights and strands of cranberries and/or popcorn.

Surviving the holidays

fallfrenzysidebarLove, Laugh & Live: The Emotional Side of the Holidays
Holidays are supposed to be special times for the whole family. Most of us grow up expecting them to be memorable and fun. When we have children, we experience these dreams and expectations even more acutely.

It’s perfectly natural, then, to experience an emotional roller coaster when presented with the challenge of navigating holidays with a child with special needs.

One key to managing this inevitably frustrating situation is learning to let go.

“You have to be willing to modify certain traditions, or forget them all together,” says Barbara Streett, parent of a child with autism. “What you want or envision may not be the best thing for your child, so you have to change your plan accordingly.”

With this in mind, Community Gatepath therapists suggests that parents set realistic expectations and remind themselves of the following tips:

  • Holidays are about the kids; it’s a successful holiday if the kids are happy.
  • When you feel frustrations welling up, take a step back and focus on what you’re doing.
  • Allow yourself to be frustrated and anxious; there’s no shame in that.
  • Remind yourself that it’s OK to let go of certain traditions that just won’t work…for now.
  • Remember what your child’s “currency” is and use that to interact with him or her.

Streett is careful to add that especially at holiday time, the definition of a family meal should be flexible.

“If your child doesn’t want to eat with everybody else, that needs to be OK; if the child needs to take a break, let him go,” she says. “The sooner you stop fighting the fact that these kinds of traditions must be set in stone, the more enjoyable the holiday will be.”

Links & Resources
Halloween Costumes for Children with Special Needs
Sensory Awareness at Home

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