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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

4 Simple Ways to Include Children With Special Needs in Holiday Traditions

My favorite time of year is fall.  Not because of the beautifully colored leaves, the pumpkin flavored everything or even the opportunity to buy brand new school supplies.  It’s because every fall, I make applesauce with my grandmother.

I’ve done it for as long as I can remember.

It began as something special I did alone with my grandmother.  Then, my brother’s wife had their first baby, and Grandma invited them to join.

There wasn’t much a 10 month baby could do, so her first year, we let her play in the sink and hand us apples to rinse.  After that, she left the kitchen to play while Grandma, my sister-in-law and I finished the hours long process of cutting, cooking, straining and seasoning.  Having my niece there made the tradition more meaningful even if she was only able to participate by splashing in the water for a few minutes.

My brother and I now have four kids between us, ranging in age from four to seven, one of whom has Autism.   In their own way, each of the kids explore and participate in the kitchen - splashing in the water, cutting apples, cranking the food mill, stirring in the spices or just tasting the finished product.

We’ve certainly had to adjust our tradition to include young children and accommodate their different abilities.   Elena, my niece with Autism, does the best alone in the kitchen with me and her mother and has one-on-one, often hand over hand help.  Traditionally, everyone was in the kitchen all day bumping into each other, talking and laughing.  Now we take a few minutes to send the other kids to play so Elena can have the less chaotic environment she needs to be able to enjoy the tradition without getting overwhelmed and having a meltdown.  Granted, it’s not always such a small tweak to a tradition that makes it feasible to partake in with kids with special needs.

Here are some fool proof strategies to maintaining family traditions with kids of all abilities:

1. Understand small moments can make for meaningful traditions. Making applesauce is a particularly epic family tradition but not all traditions have to be.  A short moment like reading the same book every Christmas Eve or opening an advent calendar each night leading up to Christmas can be just as meaningful as a day long tradition.  Even planning your route home from therapy so you can see Christmas lights can be a simple and fun tradition.

Remember, it isn’t all or nothing. My niece isn’t able to participate in the whole day of applesauce making or get through a family party without retreating into her own physical and head space for a little while. That doesn’t mean the short time she was fully present and participating weren’t meaningful to her or us.

Perhaps you love to make Christmas cookies but your child isn’t able to physically help with all the steps.  You both may enjoy sprinkling colored sugar on top using hand over hand assistance.  Maybe you want everyone in your family to sign the Holiday card.  Your son with special needs could make his thumbprint instead or even just a dot of paint in his favorite color.

2. Your therapy team is there to help your family find ways to include your child in your traditions. You likely have a team of people helping you teach your child everything from how to eat with a spoon to how to answer questions about their day.  These folks are experts at preparing kids for tasks and adapting environments.

Do you love going Christmas caroling but have a child who hates singing? Maybe your ABA team can work on helping your child tolerate singing long so you can get through one song.  Perhaps your speech therapist can help you turn Frosty the Snowman into an adapted book.  Maybe your OT has noise canceling headphones.  Does everyone help decorate the tree but your child’s wheelchair inhibits their ability to reach it?  Put a smaller tree on your kitchen table and pull your child right up so they can reach the branches.

3. Adjust your expectations. There are some things a child with special needs may be able to do or could do but would be miserable doing.

Perhaps everyone sitting for a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner is particularly important to you but your child hates to sit still and hates turkey.  Let her eat plain noodles and either excuse her from the table before she gets miserable or keep a fun activity she can do at the table while everyone finishes eating (Legos, coloring materials, play dough and a small sensory box are all easy, non-screen ideas).  Perhaps let her stand up while she eats. With an older child, you can set a timer and after spending the required amount of time at the table with everyone, she can retreat to a quiet spot with a book or Ipad.

4. Create new traditions based on what your child can do or is interested in.  Maybe you have a Lego obsessed kiddo who can build you a Lego menorah or star for the top of the tree.  Perhaps your child loves Mickey Mouse more than anything else in the world.  You can make a Mickey Mouse advent calendar or Christmas ornament or even just sit together and watch a Mickey Christmas special on TV.

What began as a quiet, exclusive tradition for my grandmother and me has taken on a whole new life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Each of our four children looks forward to it every year.

For the month of December, we will be celebrating the holidays with our 12 Days of Christmas. Be sure to check back for a new holiday piece by a new contributor.

Megan Murphy is a developmental therapist for the Illinois Early Intervention program and an adjunct professor at DePaul University.  She lives with her husband and daughter in Chicago.  In addition to applesauce making, Megan's favorite family tradition is getting Christmas ornaments as souvenirs  and then reminiscing each year as the ornaments are hung on the tree.  


  1. These are good pointers for parents and other family members of kids with special needs. I hope people take the time to read this and do this.

  2. Would she ever write about toys to buy kids? My nephew is autistic.

    1. I am not sure, but I can ask her if she would be interested in doing something of that nature in the future.