Special Joys, Special Challenges

Face it – with all the excitement and stimulation of the holidays, celebrating with kids can be tough. Celebrating the season with special-needs children has its own set of challenges – as well as unique joys. This month we talked with Bay Area experts to help families of special-needs children cope with the excitement of the holidays, including a look at holiday travel, meeting strangers (or strange relatives), visiting Santa and navigating holiday decorations which often present safety issues. This feature is part of a four-piece, year-long series on living with special-needs children.


Over the River…


Many families travel during the holidays – and as we all know, it can be both fun and challenging. For families with special-needs children there are extra challenges that require advance preparation, assistance and support.


“Traveling can be a very scary experience – riding an airplane for the first time, being in crowded airports or public places, staying in hotel rooms, visiting unfamiliar places that can be over-stimulating,” says Lori Mothersell, MFT, Principal of Richmond-based A Better Chance School – a private school serving children and young adults with autism and similar disabilities, run and supported by the California Autism Foundation. “Preparing children ahead of time and during the activities will help to calm some of the anxiety and minimize or prevent negative behaviors.”


Parents should begin preparing children at least one to two weeks before traveling. “They can use picture stories, books and cut-out or real pictures as a means to explain the different places that they will be going or different experiences they will be having,” she says.


Matthew McAlear, the vice president and chief program officer for Easter Seals Bay Area, suggests using role-play to give children practice ahead of time in dealing with new social situations. He also suggests they work together with parents to write a “social story” that incorporates all the elements of an upcoming event or visit to better prepare them for that situation.


Kids can also be encouraged to plan for the trip themselves. “Counting down a trip by marking off days on a calendar with your child is often very helpful,” says Michelle Ficcaglia, Ph.D., the clinical supervisor for the East Bay Autism Project. “Additionally, you can try to prepare your child for a plane, car or train ride by reading books about the mode of travel you will be using.”


Keeping to a routine also helps. “Routine is comforting to all children, but it’s especially important for many special needs children,” says Ficcaglia. “Travel makes it hard, especially with time changes, airport delays, and other factors, so as much as parents can, try to stick to their regular routine which will help avoid stress and reduce anxiety.”



One thing that might help parents handle the trip is to let hotels and airlines know in advance if you will be traveling with a speci

al-needs child. “Be forthright explaining your situation to those you meet,” McAlear says. He says the Autism Society of America has wallet-sized cards – explaining autism and some of the behaviors that may be displayed – that can be handed to people, including airport security and airline staff. If you are traveling by air, inform the airline of your child’s special needs so that staff can assist in making the experience as comfortable and stress-free as possible.


If you are staying away from home be sure to inform the hotel of your child’s specific needs and ask what special accommodations are available. Request a refrigerator or kitchenette if eating some meals in the room may provide a calming break. Take your child’s own sheets if that may make him more comfortable. 


Ficcaglia suggests that parents always put together some of the child’s favorite toys, snacks or other comfort objects before the trip. For some children a couple of small new toys keep their attention better than familiar toys. For others, familiar toys are better. For children who are sensitive to the noise caused by busy airports, planes, etc., headphones or earplugs can also offer the child some much needed quiet.


The Family Visit


Whether you’re traveling out of town to Grandma’s house or hosting relatives and friends at your home, the holidays can bring an increase of family as well as excitement to any holiday celebration. For those with special-needs children, the extra excitement  – such as loud noises and voices, crowds of people and increased visual and over-stimulation – can be difficult and may increase their anxiety. 


Like with traveling, preparation is the key, says Mothersell. Using the same tools – pictures of the people attending a gathering, a countdown method, keeping to a regular routine – will help all children, but especially those on the autism spectrum. She suggests also having a support person – a friend or family member – specifically with the child so they can help if the child becomes too overwhelmed.


McAlear says family and friends need to keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or stress in the child – they will probably give you a clear sign when it’s time for a break. “If you are going to visit family or friends, arrive early and make sure there is a quiet, calm place for retreat. Compile a list of activities that can help your child fill his/her time wherever you go.”


Make sure to tell your child specifically what will be going on and what your expectations are in a way that they can understand, Ficcaglia says. “For some children this will just involve telling them what will happen next. For others, you may be able to tell them several steps of the process in advance.”



Peggy James, the program director and lead instructor for Hoofprints on the Heart (HOTHARC) at Hagemann Farm in Livermore, even suggests that parents talk with guests before the party, if possible, about holiday traditions. “Talk with them in advance (about) how you celebrate the holidays, how you do things – as that’s what your child is used to. The more you keep it simple and consistent with what your child needs and knows, the better.” 


That advice is also good when visiting others’ homes this holiday season. “Don’t be afraid to talk to them in advance about some of your child’s needs,” James says. “It might be a seating request at the dinner table, specific items such as  utensils, different place setting, more room or space (perhaps near the end or corner of the table for better access), a high chair or any other equipment your child might regularly use.  These advance efforts will make the child and your family more comfortable.”


Experts also say to make sure family members understand your child’s dietary needs, and to let relatives know what your child likes to do. “Grandparents and other relatives or friends often want to interact with a special-needs child but become overwhelming to the child because they try too hard or in a way the child is not comfortable,” Ficcalia says. “Help these adults develop meaningful games or activities that they can enjoy with your child. For instance, if your child loves bubbles bring a set of new blowers and bubble solution to Grandma’s house and let the grandparents and child develop a game. This will be fun for all and will create wonderful memories for your child and family members.”


Dana Young is an Oakland-based freelance writer and mother of 7-year-old triplets.




Visiting Santa


Visiting Santa can be over-stimulating for most children. For special-needs children it can be a scary experience. Experts urge parents to be cautious:


Engage in soothing activities before heading out to see Santa.


Prepare them and give them a time limit: “We are going to see Santa for five minutes (or however long you think is the most they can tolerate) and then we will go (play favorite activity or eat favorite food).” 


If the lights and sounds over-stimulate your child, you might offer them earplugs to block out much of the noise.


Avoid peak hours at shopping malls and Santa’s village. Or, as an alternative, many special-needs organizations offer specific holiday events for special-needs children. For instance, families involved with Hoofprints on the Heart Adaptive Riding Center can visit Santa at a family potluck or special day that is not open to the public.


Finally, while this may seem like a no-brainer for many parents of special-needs children, experts warn that decorating the house for the holidays can make kids uncomfortable. The change of routine – as well as all the extra visual stimulation – can be hard for some special-needs children to handle.


Hair for the Holidays


Getting a haircut for the holidays can be a challenging experience for children with autism – as well as for parents and stylists. Snip-Its hair salon in Palo Alto, has partnered with Autism Speaks to make the experience a little easier. The two organizations collaborated on a nine-page Haircutting Training Guide and Tips for Successful Haircuts video that gives both parents and Snip-its stylists tips on how to give autistic children a wonderful hair-cutting experience. Snip-Its is currently the only hair salon for children that have specially trained stylists to work with kids with autism.


This holiday season Snip-Its will donate 50 cents to Autism Speaks for every bottle of Snip-Its hair care product sold (excluding trial sizes) in Snip-Its salons across the country through Dec. 20, 2009. The Palo Alto store at 855 El Camino Real (Town and Country Village) is the only Snip-Its salon in the Bay Area. For more information, call 650-323-8330 or visit snipits.com.






Autism Society of Americaautism-society.org. Here you can purchase an Autism Awareness Wallet Card 100 Pack, colorful two-sided cards that provide “helpful hints” for interacting with someone who has autism. Includes special information for law enforcement or medical emergency personnel. Available in English or Spanish. Visit the Web site, click on SHOP, then MAIN STORE, and scroll to the Wallet Cards ($15.50 per 100).


Autism Speaksautismspeaks.org.


California Autism Foundationcalautism.org.


Easter Seals Bay Areabayarea.easterseals.com.


Hoofprints on the Hearthotharc.org.

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