Plan to Prevent Holiday Meltdowns for Your Child with Special Needs (and Yourself!)

Holiday gatherings have led to some of the most humungous meltdowns we’ve experienced with my youngest son Jake, who is diagnosed on the severe end of the autism spectrum.  I can’t say I haven’t joined him a time or two either!  Once the tears have cleared and the peace restored, reflection really helps for creating better plans for future events.  Here are ten of the top tips we’ve found beneficial:

  1. It is better to customize the tradition to your current family members and their specific needs vs. trying to adjust your child to the tradition.  For instance our son is not forced to stay in the room while everyone opens presents–-the tearing of paper, cheering and hugging is all too much for him.  He peeks in if he wants, and is encouraged to open his presents later at his own pace as he is able.
  2. Participation at family gatherings or parties doesn’t have to be all or none, skip what doesn’t work for your child. Come late or leave early.
  3. Speak up ahead of time.  An email or phone call specifying what would make things easier might be very helpful.  Just don’t expect people to be as motivated as you to make the adjustments. Explain as clearly as you can and express your appreciation for everyone’s help. If they don’t follow through, see tip #4.
  4. Have an escape route plan. Or at least a plan B.  We have had to drive separately at times so that one of us could leave with our son if things aren’t working out. Other times a relaxing drive or retreat to a back bedroom with the door closed to share some books while the child has a healthy snack can restore calmness amongst the chaos.
  5. Special diets and holiday spreads often just don’t mix.  Bring lots of acceptable and enjoyable snacks and treats for your child too.  Make it special, things that he/she can look forward to on holiday occasions. Request ahead of time (out of your child’s ear shot) that super-tempting but forbidden foods be offered discreetly or while you take your child for a drive, etc.  Remind everyone to destroy the evidence.
  6. If possible, take turns with kid duty. Pick the family members who have the best rapport with your child and request them to take over supervising for a specified time period so you can have time socializing with other family members.  If no one fits the bill, this may be something to work on changing outside of holiday events.  I’ve heard some families bring an aide or sitter to help with their special child.
  7.  Enjoy and appreciate time with your child. Notice what they notice, join in their enjoyment. Give them plenty of positive attention. Watch for the warning signs of stress overload.
  8. Keep conscious of how often your child is eating, what they are eating, and how off he/she is from the typical daily schedule.  It is easy to get distracted and lose track of their routine care needs, and the child may not be able to let you know until it is too late.  Prioritize meltdown prevention before partying, so that the party need not be over early and abruptly.
  9. Prepare for transitions. All too often things have gone beautifully but then all falls apart on the ride home. Social stories sometimes help, using visuals lets the child know what to expect. Motivation such as a special treat to eat on the way home or a favorite toy, book, or song he/she gets to have in the car can help. Letting my son take home something from Grandma’s house, for example, helps him feels like all the fun isn’t over yet. I secretly return the item after he has forgotten about it days later.
  10. If things do go awry, try to avoid blaming. You and your child are doing the best you can. Your family members are doing the best they can with what they know.  Be your own advocate as well as your child’s. Speak up with love but firmness. Instead of pointing fingers, work to create solutions. Your child’s challenges offer the gift of creativity and through faith and God’s help you can receive the opportunity to create new ways that will work. There’s no need to doubt yourself, you were chosen to care for this child and you are the best person for the job.  Believe it!

Throughout the entire season as well as year round, please prioritize love, peace, and joy.  These things can be found whether your holiday gatherings are quiet or crazy.  If your situation is like mine, it will probably be a mixture of both!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Tara McClintick About Tara McClintick

Tara McClintick is an Early Childhood Special Education teacher turned Son-Rise® mom. She is the mother of two amazing boys, the youngest one considered on the severe end of the autism spectrum. She creates fun, visually based concept books designed to promote awareness, thinking, interaction and language development that can be found at BooksbyTara.com.




  • http://www.facebook.com/JudyEndow Judy Endow

    Very practical advice that will be useful to many parents trying to navigate holiday time spent at family gatherings!

  • D. S. Walker

    Wonderful advice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tara.mcclintick.7 Tara McClintick

    Thanks D.S.!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tara.mcclintick.7 Tara McClintick

    Thanks Judy, your book “Outsmarting Explosive Behavior” was a big help in helping us learn to reflect and recognize our son’s stress signals!