The Challenge of Holidays for Tweens, Teens with Special Needs

With Special Needs, the Holidays Are Not the Most Wonderful time of the Year

Whoever named December the most wonderful time of the year likely didn’t have children and if they did, I’m certain they didn’t have a kid on the autism spectrum. The holidays are a time of hustle and bustle full of things-to-do, presents to buy and wrap, treats to bake, decorations to put up, people to see, and special meals to make or attend.

presentDon’t get me wrong: I’m not a Grinch, but our holidays are nowhere picture perfect or look like those you see in magazines or on TV. I do enjoy them, but it takes lots of extra planning to make sure they don’t become completely overwhelming for my son, Michael. As he’s getting older – he’s now 12½ — it’s becoming more difficult. Given his age, people expect more of him, then say a 3- or 4-year-old, but he sometimes can’t deliver. He isn’t a fan of get-togethers with lots of people – even if they are all family members – and either wants to sequester himself in another room playing with Legos or a video game and always wants to leave early. He’s also very scheduled-orientated. We normally eat at the same time each day, which rarely happens when you get together for family meals. Michael will whine to me about being hungry and usually eats too many snacks so I need to keep a close eye on him, which can take away some of my time to visit with others.

Crowded stores, school concerts and churches are no fun. Neither are locations that are extra loud or are otherwise sensory overloaded.

Then there’s the waiting. Waiting for people to arrive, waiting for people to leave (if they’re at our house), waiting to eat, waiting for the presents. Michael is like a preschooler with his excitement for presents and I always need to remind him discreetly in advance that he needs to say thank you for the gift no matter what it is (he’s usually pretty good about that) but when the 12-year-old is begging more to open presents than a 3-year-old, well it’s a bit challenging to deal with.

We’re fortunate our family is very accepting of Michael and his challenges and know that he’ll likely slip away – and usually take his sister along – to play and understand when he’s “done” and we leave an event early. It’s also appreciated when people ask him how he’s doing and show an interest in what he’s interested in – even if it’s listening to a longish story about Minecraft – or playing his latest made-up game (he likes to take parts of different board games and combine them into a unique game).

This holiday season if you encounter tweens and teens with special needs, please be understanding to both him and his parents. Show extra kindness and remember they’re just trying to do the best they can – that’s the best give you can give.

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MaryBeth Matzek

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