Helpful Holiday Hints for Special Needs Families


gengoux-graceDr. Grace Gengoux is a Clinical Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) with expertise in the clinical evaluation and behavioral treatment of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

With the holidays upon us, we asked AbilityPath guest expert Dr. Grace Gengoux to provide us with tips on topics families frequently ask about during the holidays.

Changes to Routines and Schedule
The holidays bring many adjustments to school and home schedules. Winter breaks have students out of their Monday through Friday routines and at home or in day care environments for extended hours. Visiting family members or holiday travel can also cause disruptions to daily routines at home. These changes are inevitable and are part of the fun of the season, but can be a struggle for some children with special needs. However, with some advance work we can help children transition through the new schedules for an enjoyable vacation. I often recommend the following when families know there are going to be extended breaks or interruptions to their child’s daily routines:

  1. Develop a predictable schedule. Work with your teachers or specialists to plan ahead to maintain a schedule once school is out. Try to come up with activities that are similar to your child’s familiar schedule.
  2. Consider visual supports. For children who have more difficulties with transitions and change overall, a visual schedule for the new routine may help the child understand what to expect next in the day. Children who are accustomed to visual schedules at school or in therapy may find this familiar approach particularly helpful.
  3. Prepare and communicate. For instance, the week or two before winter break starts begin counting down on a calendar and making the change seem exciting by giving your child something to look forward to like, “Tommy in 4 days school will be closed for the holidays and we are going to start a special new game.” Continue this type of communication up until the new schedule starts. Selecting either a new or preferred activity to do on the first day of the holiday vacation can help a child adjust to the new routine.

Sibling Play

Home for the holidays not only means changes in routines but also changes to the amount of time siblings are together. This is often a big challenge, but one that doesn’t always come to mind until the kids are all under the same roof all day. I work with families to plan ahead and minimize unstructured downtime. Some tips I share with families include:

  1. Deliberately plan activities all the children will enjoy.
  2. Try to select activities that foster cooperative play rather than competition.
  3. Pick activities with multiple pieces or roles so that children can work as a team with each child having a specific job. For instance, if you are baking cookies, each child could be in charge of a part of the process (gathering ingredients, measuring and mixing, rolling and cutting cookies, decorating with frosting). Or, you can set up opportunities for some great cooperation by making sure the necessary materials are distributed among the children. For example, if you give each child a different color of frosting, you’ll create lots of opportunities for sharing and trading (a great way to practice social skills!). Just make sure the children practice asking nicely for the colors they want (no grabbing!). I always encourage families to collaborate or brainstorm activities with their child’s teachers or therapists to maximize the learning potentials. And, of course most importantly, make it fun!

Preparing Visiting Family Members

family-membersBefore relatives you haven’t seen in a while come to visit, take some time to think about what you would put in a “tool kit” for your family member to make the best of their time with your child. I always remind parents and caregivers that they know their child best and are the true experts in anticipating how their child is going to respond to new situations.

When children have challenging behaviors, I work with families to outline potential triggers and develop ways to hopefully avoid them. AbilityPath has also developed some sample letters for visiting family members. If you have recent photos of the family members who will be visiting, use those as well in introducing the new face to your child on the days leading up to their arrival. Some families even have family members send short videos to the child that simply say “Hi, it’s Grandma Jane and I can’t wait to see you soon!” so the child has time to be reintroduced to the face and voice of ‘grandma.’

Utilize this as an opportunity to also share the recent accomplishments your child has achieved. These wins are just as important for family members to know as potential triggers. In fact, the successes can often help family members understand the journey of your child better and celebrate along with you.

Travel Tips

travel-tips-1What parent is really ready to get in the car for that long distance trip or board that cross country flight? But with some preparation, many of these headaches can be avoided or minimized. I work with families to anticipate the problems they foresee with their upcoming travel. Once those are outlined we work at building in strategies to work through those issues if/when they occur. One family favorite tip is:


Time Travel Game

What is needed: Clock or stop watch and small trinkets, toys or snacks.


Let your child know up front that the trip is going to be long but that you have expectations of behavior for the trip—be clear with what those expectations are (i.e., keeping seat belts fastened, using quiet voices, keeping their hands to themselves, etc.). And that every hour if they meet your expectations then they get a prize. Parents say children really enjoy this game and watching time pass often becomes a game within itself. Some parents wrap the prizes to help with the WOW factor and others let the child pick so they get a sneak peak at what they can get next and it becomes a motivator. Adapt to what your child would most enjoy!

Share your have travel suggestions with what has worked for you. AbilityPath has also put together other travel tips for families.

Social Skills and Gifts

boy-at-xmasHolidays and gifts go hand in hand, but for many children with special needs, particularly those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), the appropriate social skills around gift giving and receiving do not come naturally. Helping a kid understand why it is important to say “thank you”, even if he liked another gift better, can be especially tricky for a child who doesn’t truly understand how his behavior makes other people feel. On the other side, helping children learn not to tell the recipient of the gift what is underneath the wrapping paper or in the gift bag is also just as valuable of a social skill to hone during this season of giving.

I recommend practicing with your child leading up to the gift exchange. Practice both giving and receiving and simple language, like “thank you for the present,” for the child to use during the actual event. AbilityPath found a gift giving social story that might be useful in practicing with your child. The social story is compliments of HANDS in Autism, which is a part of the Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center, a comprehensive hospital-based and university affiliated autism treatment center engaging in clinical research and outreach activities in the state of Indiana.

The holidays can be stressful because they involve so many new things to manage: new schedules, new destinations or visitors, new behaviors and social skills, not to mention all the other holiday related to-dos that often fall into the laps of parents. Preparation is key for helping you stay calm and helping your child know what to expect. Most importantly trust your parental instinct, you know your child best. Hopefully some of the tips shared here will help you plan an enjoyable vacation! I also encourage parents to talk to other families to share tips and ideas because there is nothing better than a tried and true recommendation from someone who has “been there.”

Happy Holidays!

Related Articles:
Holiday Gift Guide by Bloggers of Children with Special Needs
Making the Most of the Holidays for Your Family and Son/Daughter with Autism
Five Things that Contribute to Stress and Ways to Manage Them