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Helping your child with special needs during the holidays

Here are some tips to help your child with special needs prepare for the holiday season.

I encourage parents to remember that as stressful and overwhelming the pressures of the holidays are for us, they are equally uprooting for our children. Given this situation, we should be understanding and flexible while providing as much structure and routine as possible.

Prepare: Choose two to three behaviors on which to focus and use the weeks prior to the holiday to teach the skill. For example, asking for a break politely when needed, keeping hands and feet to oneself, greeting family members, or socializing with guests using a few pre-rehearsed questions. When providing guidance to a child on socializing, I would explain to him that people like when you try to show interest in their life. For example, asking, "how are you?" or "how is your family?" can help people feel welcome. It's the pre-teaching that's essential to help your child reach success.

Practice: Once you create awareness of the behavior, even if it's a behavior you'd like to see decrease like fidgeting, design practice situations and reinforce the behavior you want to see. For example, you can make a game out of thinking about conversation starters, practice giving compliments, have a fun meal practicing table manners the wrong way followed by the instruction of the right way, or introduce gift giving and receiving manners such as appropriate ways of handling disappointment or excitement. Once the skill is taught and practiced, a good reinforcement will always help improve performance! Just like wanted to earn your time off or win the trophy, reinforcements can enhance performance!

Plan: With all of that said and done, the key is to have appropriate plan. Set your child up to be successful by designing a holiday dinner or activity to better meet their needs.

  1. Give breaks between courses for long dinners. For example, you can ask your child to give out napkins or go upstairs to get their favorite book to share.

  1. Place a kids table in a quieter space to help those with sensory sensitivities or if your child dislikes certain foods, people, or objects place them away from that particular item to avoid the trigger,

  1. Create a schedule for the evening or activity to help your child understand the structure of the event

  1. Create a fun game out of dinner such as count the number of times Aunt Margret says "precious."

Lower your expectations over the holiday season. Don't chose this time to work on a new, difficult behavior or expect long periods of excellent behavior. Our children are as disoriented and disorganized in their thoughts and behaviors as we adults are during the holiday season!

Be Realistic: Giving children opportunities to excuse themselves appropriately, allowing them to play in another room while adults finish eating/talking, giving them a schedule for gift opening and allowing them to choose who should open the gift next, structuring unstructured time as much as possible and in general keeping expectations reasonable during all holiday activities are all ways to improve your chances of a successful holiday.

Remember, be practical. Make sure you have reasonable expectations for your child.

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