Special Needs Kids and the Holidays
Written by Treece Marcum
It’s that wonderful time of year again. With the aroma of pumpkin pie in the air and visions of Christmas morning dancing in our heads, it’s easy to get swept up in the moment or the several upcoming moments of the season. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas can be wonderful family experiences, especially for those of us that homeschool our children. For others of us, however, it can be a quite stressful.
My mind begins to sizzle and pop like the crackling logs in my fireplace because of the frantic questions in my mind. How can I tie in a quick study of the country Turkey for a geography lesson to the turkey we’ve been raising this past year for our Thanksgiving meal? Other than “Tom” what am I going to make for Thanksgiving? The WHOLE family is coming to our house this year. Did I get everything the kids wanted for Christmas? I spent more than the limit my husband and I agreed upon. Can I hide the receipts from him until after Valentine’s Day? Daunting as these questions may be, I can handle it. I go through this every year. I’m used to it. It’s just one of those expected little nuances we go through; after all, ‘tis the season, as they say. I haven’t had to take out that second mortgage yet to pay for it all so I’m OK, really.
However, in the midst of my stereotypical ADD moment, I realize that I haven’t made the “escape plans”. Escape plans, you ask? Yes, escape plans. You see, I have two sons that have Aspergers Syndrome. It’s an Autism Spectrum Disorder. A disorder that on a day-to-day basis can be filled with very interesting conversations about how Bionicles would be better politicians than humans. Or, we could be discussing, yet again, that just because you think something about someone, you shouldn’t tell them because you might hurt their feelings. That conversation goes a little like this: “Yes, son, I know Aunt Harriet has a mustache, but we shouldn’t tell her she should dye it to match the rest of her hair.” It never gets boring and to be quite honest, this is just how my son’s are. I don’t think of it is a “disability”. I do, however, think that they have special needs and when it comes to the holidays those needs are a little more special.
Let me take you back about nine years ago when my eldest son was 4. It was Christmas morning. I had the lights on the tree lit up, the presents all arranged beautifully, and I had candles lit around the room with Christmas carols playing softly in the background. Martha Stewart herself would’ve agreed it was a “good thing”. I woke my son up and wished him a Merry Christmas. He jumped out of bed and ran to the Christmas tree. As he began violently ripping carefully wrapped presents into oblivion, his eyes began to get wider and wider. I thought this was proof that he was having the time of his life. As he mutilated the box of his third present, a pair of skates that he had been begging for, I stopped patting myself on the back and looked on in shock at the scene taking place before me.
He strapped the skates to his shoes and began shaking all over. His eyes welled up with tears and he began sobbing. He hated them, the skates, building blocks, the castle, the Legos, all of it, he HATED it. I couldn’t understand what on Earth had happened. He couldn’t speak for the wailing and crying. Right then, I knew something was VERY wrong. He was totally and irreversibly overwhelmed. Later in the day, when we went to my parent’s house for Christmas, the same thing happened again.
I leaned a lot that day. So much, in fact, our holidays have never been the same and thankfully, he has never had that experience again. We created our “escape plan” along with some other minor changes and special times or “stressful times” as they may be, are much more enjoyable.
One of the changes we made was to lower the amount of the extra visual and auditory stimulus from lights to music to candles, etc. We light up the tree. If it is too much, we “escape” for a moment by going outside and coming back in. If it’s still too much, we simply unplug the lights. He doesn’t like the music because it’s an auditory issue anyway, so we forgo it completely.
The next thing we did, which is probably the biggest, is instead of all the presents given out on Christmas morning, we practice the 12 Days of Christmas. Each night, the kids get to open one gift. Most are small and on Christmas morning, they have 3 presents they can open. This keeps the excitement to a minimum and they doesn’t get overwhelmed. As we had more children, my husband and I had to start making sure the gifts during the 12 days were on the small side and saved the biggies for Christmas morning. We are on a budget and with one income I don’t have to tell you that saving money and watching it closely are of the utmost importance.
As my next son came along, we noticed his sensitivities to the holidays were pretty large as well. For him, it seems the more people he is around the more talkative he gets. The more talkative he gets, the less sense he seems to make. Last Christmas, he was sitting by my great aunt and told her that he, “still believed in stone”. As she looked up at me with great confusion on her face I just agreed with him and gave him a big hug. He hugged me back and grinned at me, knowingly. I’m still not sure what he meant by the stone comment but to him it was a very serious statement. We took a nice long walk by the pond after I explained to her that we needed some air. He has some processing difficulties so his “escape plan” is as follows: As he gets more nervous, we start the hugs. Pressure seems to calm him down so he gets lots of squeezes. We also take trips outside to get quiet, fresh air. We talk about things out there where no one else can hear us. It also helps if he can expend some of his pent up energy so running in place or flapping hands, or whatever body movements he wants to make usually does the trick. Quick games of Simon Says are also fun. Usually, his speech returns to fluidity and we can move on.
Now that the boys are older, they can tell us when they need to use their “escape plans.” Usually, we come up with some code names for them. It makes it fun and it helps me when I’m busy in the kitchen or talking with someone. Code names like Ghost Rider and Spiderman’s Web are some good ones. Ghost Rider means, “I’m on the verge of a meltdown and I feel like I’m going to burst into flames”. Spiderman’s Web is code for, “I’m feeling like I’m sticky and this is driving me nuts!” We try to practice to make sure we are all on the same page. It’s much easier than being in a group and the boys having to tell me they feel like they’re going to burst into flames. Some people just don’t get that.
Social stories really help too. Before the holidays, during our regular homeschooling day, we sit down and talk about the different issues that might arise or some that have happened in the past. We talk about ways we can get out of that situation and/or things that might help us work through it. It makes them feel better to know beforehand that I’m watching out for them and that they have me to come to if they feel it’s just getting to be too much for them. It makes me feel better to know that they know how to handle themselves even if it means reaching out to me for help.
You know that hair club commercial where the guy says, “I’m not only the President, I’m also a client” well, I’m not only the Mom of two Aspies I am also an Aspie myself. Being older, I have learned my own little sets of “escape plans” that help me. My husband also helps a great deal by recognizing my nervousness before I do. He puts his hand on the small of my back and smiles gently to let me know that I’m stressing. That’s when WE go for a little walk outside while my Mom looks after the boys for a minute or two. So, take it from me. The holidays are a very wonderful time for friends and family. But they can be quite stressful for those of us that have special needs. If you have a child or children with special needs think about past issues and possible problematic areas. You can also talk to them and find out what their triggers are and work with them to hatch their own “escape plan”.
Treece Marcum is a homeschooling mom of three in Arkansas. Her family lives on a small homestead with chickens, turkeys, guineas, and a cat named Neko.