Robin Bennett
November 15, 2015

The holiday season is upon us and it seems that no matter what holiday you and your family celebrate or how you celebrate it, one common factor prevails from family to family: the holidays bring crowds! Even when sharing the spirit of the holidays with just our relatives, that usually means putting out at least one more place setting or wrapping at least one more gift. But to children with special needs, the amount of love and tidings being shared on a holiday can feel like too much to handle. 4th Wall is excited to share some ideas and suggestions to help your child with special needs cope during the holidays, while at the same time allowing them to engage in the smiles and laughter that make these seasons bright. Some of these ideas are the very ones that help to inform our instructors and bring life to our workshops, while other tips are specific to large family gatherings.

img_0165Coping with Over-Stimulation

The bright lights, festive smells, and greetings of cheer all around are not everyone’s favorite parts of the holidays, especially those with sensory sensitivities. For a child with special needs, seeing abundant relations that they may be around only a few times a year or encountering new smells might send them running for a quiet corner. Which brings us to our first tips:

  • Have a “Safe Brain Space” designated before the festivities begin that the other guests know is off-limits to them for the evening. Personalize this space for your child, letting them know this is their spot, and theirs alone, to calm and quiet their busy brain if the tidings around them become too much.
  • Consider reviewing the names and relations of loved ones and party guests before any seasonal shindig, especially if your child does not see them often. Go through photo albums, perhaps reminding them of fun times they shared or positive anecdotes about the person. This will make your child more comfortable when greeted by Great-Gram with her toothy grin or Uncle Chris with his loud belly laugh.
  • Prepare your guests on your child’s sensitivities. No, you certainly don’t need to provide a rank and file of every detailed diagnosis. Simply be honest about realistic and foreseeable occurances; for example, your son may not be fond of physical touch, so when greeting guests or phoning family members beforehand, you might say, “Our family is so excited to be coming/that you are coming this year! Just as a reminder, Johnny doesn’t really give hugs and kisses, but he loves to high-five!” or if new smells are Holly’s nemesis, you might ask your family members who are hosting not to light fragranced candles or try adding a small amount of cinnamon, peppermint, etc. to her play-doh a few weeks beforehand to allow her to get used to the new fragrances.


  • img_0164Give your child an itinerary for the night. Have the itinerary explain things like the fact that standing around and chatting/smalltalk is normal or that there may be times when cooking different items may be going on, so they can avoid certain rooms, like the kitchen. Be sure to add times you want him/her with the family so that they transition easier: like greeting family, any planned games, dinner, and opening gifts. You can also add a color-coded key to the itinerary showing which times/rooms might be louder or have more people: red for high activity times/areas, yellow for medium activity times/areas, and green for low activity times/areas.

For more tips on how to make these holidays the best overall experience possible for your child, click here.

Engaging/Bringing Your Child & Family Together

img_0163 While there is nothing wrong with having an iPad standing by or a favorite movie in the DVD player for emergency distraction purposes, 4th Wall Theatre Company knows the value of engaging children with special needs with others, especially with their family and loved ones.

  • Try to incorporate some specific times for the family to bond that are built around your child’s abilities. The “Thankful for Me and You” game is great. It starts with each person at the table sharing a positive affirmation about themselves, “I am thankful that I am organized” or “I am thankful that I am creative”; after they share a statement about themselves they share one of someone else at the table. Try to encourage the people at your table to keep their statements simple, as an example to your child. If your child is nonverbal, encourage them to draw a picture to explain what they are thankful for about themselves and about others beforehand.
  • Allow your child to participate in the family meal. Give them a job handing out dinner rolls or taking drink orders. This will help them feel involved in the meal and more likely to participate and sit for a longer period of time.


  • img_0162If gift giving is a part of your celebration, allow your child to make a list of everyone coming and take them to the dollar store to pick out something of their choice for each relative/loved one. If it is difficult for them to make a decision, give them a choice between two things for each person. You might find him or her excited when the day comes to give the gifts out. This will allow you to still buy gifts for the family yourself, without breaking the bank.
  • Help your child and relatives to interact by providing them with conversation starters. You can say things like, “Billie had a really lovely trip to Disney World this year with our family. If you ask him, he’ll tell you all about it.” Or “Sloane has a hard time answering some questions, but if you give her a choice between a yes or no, she’ll be able to answer easier.”
  • You might even consider allowing your child to get up from the table if they become antsy and go around asking each guest an “interview” question. Give them one question to ask and encourage them to move from person to person throughout the meal. You may even stumble on a new family tradition!

For more tips on how to engage your loved one with special needs with your family and friends during the holidays click here.

The holidays can be a stressful time with a lot to deal with, but the resounding theme of the tips offered is to BE PREPARED! Feel free to talk to your family and prepare them with ideas for coming to your home or what might be the best environment for your child at their home. Be sure to take a break for yourself this holiday season and happy holidays from all of us at 4th Wall Theatre Company¡