How can I help my child with special educational needs cope over Christmas?

Christmas can be a tricky time for neurodivergent children or children with SEND. This could be the case if your child is autistic or has ADHD or a sensory processing disorder.

They may find it hard to adjust to different light, colour, sound, smells, textures and tastes. It might be that their  senses become overwhelmed. Changes in routine can also affect how they feel. Planning in advance can help you all adapt and enjoy the festive period.

Make a list

Make a list of what your child finds difficult. This could be anything from big crowds, loud noises, surprises or bright lights. Try to think about when they might experience those. How could you avoid those situations? If that isn’t an option, consider how you can help your child prepare.

Speak to their school

Find out what’s happening at your child’s school or nursery. Celebrations could include concerts, parties, lunches or Christmas jumper days. This could become overwhelming for some children. If you feel your child may need extra support during these times, make sure the school is aware.

Involve them in decisions

Let your child have a say in the Christmas decorations around your home. Ask them to help you choose lights, colours and textures that they feel comfortable with.

Prepare them for gifts

Some children with additional needs find surprises overwhelming. You might want to let them know what type of gifts they will open on Christmas Day. For example, you could tell them you will give them a book, and the surprise is which book you choose. It can also help to:

  • Spread gift giving over a period of time or different days.
  • Give gifts without wrapping.
  • Talk to friends and family to explain that your child’s responses to gifts might not be what they expect.

Create a safe space

Keep at least one room in the house free of decoration. Try to make sure it looks like it usually does. This can be a safe space for your child if they feel overwhelmed.

Consider any changes in routine

Try to prepare your child each day for what’s coming tomorrow. Talk to them about who will be there, what they will do and what they’ll eat. Some children might like to have some control over some of these things. You could give them a choice between two or three different activities.

Try to keep some of their routine the same. It can be helpful to start and end their day with something you would usually do. Think about morning routines, as well as bath time, bedtime and story time.

Plan for visitors

You may also need a plan for the possibility of unexpected visitors. If your child struggles with visits at home or going out, think about how you can help. You could:

  • See if your child wants to stay at home with another family member when you go out.
  • See if they want to play in a different room.
  • Share pictures of visitors in advance, so they’re familiar with their faces.

Be conscious of sound and smells

Let your child know when there is going to be strong smells in the house. It can help to protect their bedroom from any smells, or give them alternative scents. Try essential oil rollers or lip balm on their wrists.

If there are fireworks near you, talk to your child about what to expect with the noise. Make some firework pictures together to turn it into a positive experience. Ear defenders are also helpful for some children.

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This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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