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Autism and the holidays: Tips for helping families

While an exciting and joyous time, the holidays can often be an emotional obstacle course for families of children and adolescents with special needs. Here are some tips to help make things less stressful.

Today's guest blogger is Amy Kelly, Director of Family and Community Services for Devereux PA.

While an exciting and joyous time, the holidays can often be an emotional obstacle course for families of children and adolescents with special needs. As a mother of three children, including my 14-year-old daughter, Annie, who has severe autism, I understand what this feels like.

As a child, Annie never expressed interest in the typical holiday experiences – family gatherings, traditions, opening presents, visiting Santa. These occasions were overwhelming for her. It brought a bit of sadness to my heart that Annie wasn't able to participate and enjoy the holidays in same way my other children could! But through the years, my family and I have learned to transform the holiday season into something special and exciting for all of us by finding ways to support and include Annie.

Here are a few tips for you and your family to help unlock the holiday joy for all your loved ones!

1. LEARN TO SAY NO: You don't have to go to every party or cook at every event. Let other people help and share some of the work. It's okay to go and just focus on your child and family.

2. PREPARE: Before making a trip anywhere (shopping, visiting with Santa, visiting family and friends), be sure to prepare your child well in advance. Using short sentences and pictures from years prior can help with this. For example: "In two days we are going to go visit Gram and Pop to celebrate Christmas with them. Remember how much fun we had last year?" As you show them a picture of the gathering from last year.

3. ARRIVE EARLY: It seems to be easiest for most children with special needs to become acclimated to their environment before the rest of the crowd arrives.  If you can, arrive at the venue early, let your child explore and then let people trickle in. You will have been there already and it will feel less overwhelming.

4. REQUEST GIFTS YOUR CHILD REALLY WANTS: Many of our children have developmental delays and therefore don't enjoy age-appropriate toys. Be sure to share with friends and relatives ideas for gifts that your child really will like and enjoy, rather than something that they won't be able to use or appreciate. The idea is to make the holiday fun for them, and this means thinking about their needs and wants.

5. HAVE A QUIET SPACE AVAILABLE: We all know how overwhelming holidays can be. When a child has extra needs, it can be even more so. Be sure to have a place that is soothing and quiet for them to rest and have peace if they need to get away from it all.

6. BE THANKFUL: Life is full of challenges, but one of the best gifts we can give ourselves is to appreciate the silver linings in our lives. Try and remember all of the good things that have happened throughout the year – no matter how small.  These are what make our families truly special.

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