While most kids live for the holiday season, it can be really stressful for kids with special needs. The disruptions to their schedules, unfamiliar people, houses full of noise, flashing lights and traveling can all prove to be too much—not to mention what this all does to your stress levels too. “The holidays are a particularly hard time for families with children with special needs because they bring about a lot of change,” says Jenifer Balch, a licensed professional counselor and certified autism specialist who practices at the Dallas and Flower Mound locations of University Park Counseling & Testing Center. “Any inconsistency in a family’s daily schedule—even if it’s just Mom going out to do the Christmas shopping—can be difficult for a kid with special needs to adjust to and stressful for the whole family.”
But with some additional planning (and patience), these difficulties are easily managed. “My No. 1 tip for managing stress is planning ahead and letting your kid know in advance what to expect,” Balch explains. “That gives your kid the opportunity to ask questions so you can solve problems together in advance.”
Whether that means creating a visual social story for your child or giving relatives a heads-up in advance about your child’s particular needs, preparation is key. So let us help you. We’ve compiled expert tips and practical strategies to help you get through everything from airport security lines to family gatherings this holiday season. With these tools, you can spot and minimize potential roadblocks and leave the holiday anxiety to Santa and his helpers instead.
PART 1: GETTING THERE
Planning for a successful air travel experience begins before you book your flight. First, consider the timing of the flight options. If possible, book a flight during the time of day your kid tends to be more relaxed—and the airport tends to be less crazy (as in not first thing in the morning or right after work). If you’re flying a longer distance, decide if your child might benefit from a stopover rather than a direct flight. Travelers who have trouble sitting still for long periods of time will do well with a layover that lets them stretch their legs and breaks the journey into more manageable chunks.
Once you’ve finalized your route, choose your seats wisely. If the budget allows, pay the extra to sit closer to the front of the plane, especially for kids who don’t do well in crowds since sitting in the first few rows of seats means fewer people in their sightlines. Plus, the front of the plane makes it easier and faster to disembark, and it also positions you closer to the bathroom.
Active kids might be most comfortable with a window seat so they aren’t jostled by the beverage carts and passersby in the aisle. On the other hand, a window seat can feel claustrophobic for some kids. You know your child best.
Still unsure? Check seatguru.com, a website that shows potential problem areas on any airline’s planes such as seats that frequently get bumped by others, seats with limited legroom and seats that don’t recline.
Jennifer Erp prefers to let her child select his seat. The Plano mom typically flies Southwest Airlines because her 19-year-old son, Brayden, who is on the autism spectrum, can choose where he wants to sit. (See the sidebar on this page for other airlines that make accommodations for passengers with special needs.) “Since we can pre-board and there aren’t assigned seats, we’re usually among the first ones on the plane,” Erp explains. “That means Brayden can pick out any row he wants, and I can hold seats for the rest of the family.”
Preparing To Fly
Practice, practice, practice. If this is your child’s first flight, take him to the airport in advance to watch planes take off and land, see the security checkpoint and experience the sounds and crowds at the airport. If this isn’t your child’s maiden voyage, talk about the previous flights and go over the flying process again step by step, highlighting the positive experiences they’ve had on previous trips.
Make kids a storyboard with lots of visuals, details and descriptions. “Create a social story that covers all aspects of the trip,” advises licensed professional counselor Janice A. Moran, who sees patients at Agape Psych Services in Arlington. “Include everything from packing to boarding the plane and so on.” Show them what the seats will look like and that the airplane will fly through the clouds.
Or download the Off We Go! Going on a Plane iOS app (available through iTunes) to allow your little one to interact with the story and help them get accustomed to the sounds they’ll hear. Moran also suggests watching airplane videos (a simple Google search yields lots of options) with them prior to the flight. Be sure to pause videos periodically to give kids the opportunity to ask questions.
If videos are overwhelming, try a book instead. There are lots of children’s books that explain airplanes and the flying process in simple language. Favorites include My First Airplane Ride by Patricia Hubbell and the airport-focused The Airport Book by Lisa Brown. For kids who may be sensitive to the audio and sensory experience of flying, The Noisy Airplane Ride by Mike Downs describes mechanical noises from the engine, seat-belt sign and more.
Packing Like a Pro
Bring medications, medical equipment and a copy of your child’s medical records just in case. It can also be helpful to have a doctor’s note explaining your child’s medical condition.
Pack items to help kids feel comfortable. “Be aware of your child’s sensitivities,” says Balch’s colleague Twila Farrar, who is also a licensed professional counselor and autism specialist, as well as the founder and CEO of the University Park Counseling & Testing Center. “Ask yourself, ‘does my child have issues with certain sounds or smells?’ If sensitive to noises, you can bring noise-cancelling headphones and play your child’s favorite music.” If a child is sensitive to smells, bring travel-size essential oils.
“Some of our clients pack a weighted vest,” Farrar says. “It helps kids feel like they’re getting a hug and soothes them.” You can also buy a weighted stuffed animal for kiddos who don’t like to wear additional accessories.
And pack lots of things to keep them entertained. A goody bag with a tablet, coloring books and crayons, books, stickers, snacks and water can keep kids busy for hours. If your child delights in exploring the new, pack a new toy or sticker book. If you have a creature of habit, opt for tried-and-true favorites that provide a sense of comfort. “But don’t bring your child’s one favorite item,” cautions Lewisville mom Cary Worthington, whose 6-year-old son, Aiden, has autism spectrum disorder. “You don’t want to bring something that’s irreplaceable unless you have multiples. Bring something that won’t break any hearts if it gets lost.”
If you have a tablet, load it up with your kids’ favorite shows, music and apps—and maybe some new ones too. You may choose something educational such as Learn with Rufus for iOS and Android, which teaches basic competencies and social cues. Other great educational apps include Elmo Loves 123s for iOS and Android, which helps kids do simple math like counting, addition and subtraction, or Stack the States, an app for iOS and Android, that teaches state names, shapes and capitals. Or download something just for fun like Faces iMake, where kids create faces using unexpected everyday objects such as light bulbs, spools of thread, artichokes and bananas.
Being Airport Savvy
Weigh the pros and cons of parking at the airport versus letting a friend or service drop you off curbside. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has handicap spaces available in each terminal garage, including the Express and Remote areas.
You may remember the viral video of the teen with a sensory processing disorder being patted down at a DFW Airport security checkpoint last March. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was cleared of any wrongdoing in that situation, but it’s a reminder to talk to TSA about your child’s disability and the best way to relieve your child’s concerns during the screening process. “Be sure to contact the TSA Cares hotline,” Moran advises. Call TSA Cares (855/787-2227) 72 hours before your flight to talk about screening policies, procedures and what your child—and you—can expect at the security checkpoint. They can even coordinate a TSA officer to assist you if necessary.
Note that kids ages 12 and younger and disabled passengers do not need to remove their shoes. Kids traveling in a wheelchair will be patted down. If your child uses an external medical device, find out from the manufacturer whether it can go through X-ray screening, metal detectors or advanced imaging technology before you get to the airport.
Erp says the TSA Cares program is a traveling game-changer. “Brayden doesn’t want to be patted down by security and can’t stand still for a scanner,” she says. “So I call [TSA Cares] and they give me the phone number for someone at the airports I’m flying in and out of. That contact meets us either at the curb or in the terminal and walks us through baggage check and through security. It’s been fantastic.”
Take full advantage of early boarding (talk to the gate agents if you’re unsure about the policy). This gives you and your children plenty of time to get comfortable, organized and settled on board before the rush of the rest of the passengers. “Make sure to let gate agents know if you will need strollers, wheelchairs or medical devices at each gate if you have layovers or connecting flights,” Moran adds.
“On the plane, speak to your flight attendants about what your kid needs,” Balch recommends. “You are your kid’s advocate. So if your child doesn’t like crowds, ask the flight attendants to make an announcement letting you and your family deplane first.”
Road Trippin’ It
Lots of the same sanity savers for easier air travel apply to car travel too. Make sure you pack medications and medical equipment, plus a goody bag of entertainment, a tablet with apps and lots of snacks. In fact, if yogurt, cheese and other keep-refrigerated foods make the short list of what your little one eats, think about investing in a plug-in cooler for the car. A simple Google search pulls up lots of options, many less than $50.
Planning ahead is key when you travel by car. Map your route in advance, marking restrooms, parks (you may need to pull over to let them release some energy) and restaurants you know your child likes along the way.
PART 2 : NAVIGATING THE HOLIDAY GATHERINGS
Don’t over-schedule. There’s a natural tendency to want to do more over the holidays since there are generally more activities and options to be social, but don’t do it. It’s better to have one memorable gathering or experience rather than lots of stressful and difficult ones. Pick a few doable and well-spaced-out events or activities that will be meaningful to your family and decline invitations to everything else—really, there’s no need to feel guilty.
Build in downtime. The holidays are a time for relaxation too. So on days you have a planned activity, schedule time for rest and routine before and after so kids are less likely to feel anxious and stressed.
Plan low-expectations activities. Opt for low-pressure family activities where everyone can be themselves. Invite the kids’ friends and their parents over for a mellow hot cocoa play date or a walk around the neighborhood to look at the holiday lights. In the spirit of giving, consider visiting a group home for those with special needs to deliver some holiday cheer—and maybe even some homemade gifts.
Ask for accommodations. For the public outings, call to see if there’s a more favorable option. For instance, if your child hates crowds, see if your family can attend a holiday show’s dress rehearsal instead. “You don’t know until you ask, and the worst thing that they can say is ‘no,’” Erp says. “I’ve had a lot of luck with it and sometimes they’ll surprise you.”
Preparing for Family Festivities
Let your kid know what to expect. Just like traveling, social events—even with family—can be emotionally and physically difficult for some children. Use social stories, books and movies to get them ready. “If [you can], prepare either a written or picture schedule of events for your child,” Moran suggests. “That way, she or he has at least an idea of what to expect when.”
Remind them about things that might be familiar, Farrar says. “Pull up pictures of relatives they’ve met and talk about each person,” she says. Then play memory games by matching names to faces. “It might also be helpful to FaceTime people who will be there.” This way, Aunt Edna won’t seem quite so scary when she bends down to greet your child.
Let the rest of the family know what to expect as well. “If family members don’t know your child [well], send a quick email so that you don’t have to make 10 different phone calls,” Balch says. “You can also make index cards to pass out to people at the gathering; that way your child won’t feel like you’re talking about her in those moments.”
Address potential triggers with family and friends ahead of time and offer alternatives. Those singing snowmen might be entertaining for some but could send your little one into sensory overload, so maybe the snowmen—and any other music-playing characters—disappear before you arrive. If your child doesn’t like to be hugged, suggest family give a high-five or fist bump instead.
Handling the Sticky Situation
Create a safe space. “A lot of the time when a child’s feeling overwhelmed, it’s because he’s in sensory overload,” Balch explains. Obviously confirm that it’s OK with your host beforehand, but set up a quiet space for your kiddo to go if anxiety or stress sets in. Dim the lights and give whatever you have in your bag of tricks, tactile things that help your child focus positive energy such as headphones with relaxing music or stories, a familiar toy, stuffed animal, Play-Doh to squish, Legos or puzzles.
“Have a code word for your child,” Moran suggests. “That way if she or he needs a break, the opportunity will arrive without causing too much disruption.”
Bring your own food. If your child has allergies, is a picky eater or has a special diet, arriving with your own snacks and meals means avoiding tantrums or meltdowns over the cuisine. Worthington’s son struggles with food so she travels with a cooler of goodies—that she then breaks into very small pieces—she knows he’ll eat. Aiden doesn’t have to eat the Thanksgiving stuffing or cranberry sauce during the family celebration in Glen Rose because Mom packed favorites such as yogurt and meatballs to avoid him gagging or throwing up (which he does when he eats something he doesn’t like). Her advice? “Try not to overpack when you’re traveling with food,” she says. “I bring everything but the kitchen sink, but then I have to take it all back.” You can always buy what you need when you get to your final destination.
Handle the gifts. Family members might not know what to get your child with special needs, and your child may act out if he opens something he doesn’t like or doesn’t understand. Eliminate that stress by doing the shopping for gifts from the family to your son or daughter.
Keep it real. Family get-togethers allow friends and relatives to get to know your child better—and get a better understanding of what your day-to-day life looks like. “If family members are willing to have a discussion, then try to explain your specific situation to them in the best way you know how and with love and respect,” Moran says. “Help them understand more fully how you handle situations involving your child. Stay firm in your particular rules, but be open to other ideas that might work for your family.”
And when members of your extended family ask how you are, instead of giving a generic “good” answer, be honest. If you’re not “good,” say so. You’ll get more support if you are open with these answers, Moran says. You don’t have to go into details you’re not comfortable sharing, but don’t feel like you need to be falsely cheery or lie about your life. There’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable.
“So many parents gloss over how hard their situation is,” Balch says. “They don’t want to burden people with their stuff or don’t think they understand or care. But if someone’s really asking, you can say something like ‘It’s been a challenging few weeks and I’m stressed, but I’m so glad to be here celebrating with you.”
Take care of yourself. The holidays can be stressful for your child with special needs, yes, but it’s important to remember that you need some TLC too. Experts say they can’t stress the importance of self-care enough. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” Farrar advises. “So before you travel or go to a family event, make sure you get yourself in the right place.” See a movie solo, get a manicure and pedicure, spend 10 minutes meditating, have a glass of wine with girlfriends, watch a few episodes of mindless TV—whatever you enjoy doing that’s just for you. It’s the best gift you can give yourself—and your family— this holiday season.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the November / December 2017 issue of DFW Thrive, with updates made October 2018.