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Navigating The Holidays With Special Needs

Navigating the holidays with special needs requires care and planning. It is also exhausting. 

I am tired.

Really tired.

Not so much from a lack of sleep, although I am that kind of tired too.

No, I am more weary, soul tired. My limbs feel heavy as I move through my days, and find I need to tell myself to pay attention when someone is talking.

It’s December. I love Christmas. LOVE it. I don’t want to be this tired.

My favorite childhood memories are of Christmas time. Not the gifts, but the traditions, the “special-ness” of it all.

And the “special-ness” of it all is what is most difficult for my son.

Every year, from Thanksgiving until New Years, we deal with a heightened level of tension and stress – and not because we are crazy in our decorating or saying yes to every single Christmas party (no way – momma ain’t got time for that!).

The reality is simply this: the holiday season is not easy for my boy. It hasn’t been since he was a little baby. There are valid reason for this, but prior to his diagnosis, I didn’t get it.

I can’t tell you how many Christmas mornings I spent in tears, as my son melted down either during or immediately following opening his presents.

I can’t tell you how many Christmas dinners I spent holding my breath, hoping he would take a bite of something that was on his plate.

I can’t tell you how many Christmas evenings I spent dealing harshly with my son, as I believed his behavior demonstrated a lack of gratitude.

Merry Christmas, right?

Oh my goodness, I wish sometimes I could go back in time and just bop myself upside the head.

Navigating The Holidays With Special Needs

I am glad to say that our approach to the holidays has changed quite a bit.

As my son has matures, we have learned more and more about his needs and how to help him. We have learned to be planful and intentional as we navigate the holiday season. We have learned to take seriously how difficult this time of year can be for my son.

Navigating The Holidays With Special Needs

These are the areas of greatest concern for us during the holidays:

1. Routine

The routine is less and less the same, the closer and closer we get to Christmas. For the rest of us in my home, that’s the fun of it. The season is about Jesus, and celebrating together and doing things differently as we move through the month.

For my son, this is stressful at best. He likes sameness. He likes quiet. He likes order. One time, I wanted to switch around a piece of furniture to better fit the space in our living room. He could not handle it. He started to cry and panic. We had to have a whole conversation about me never, ever rearranging his room.  So, imagine what adding a Christmas tree, and snow globes, and stockings, and nutcrackers, and advent calendars, and nativity scenes all over the house does for him.

As I have learned more and more about what my son needs, I have learned to pick my holiday battles. I try and keep the schedule exactly the same in morning and at night, no matter what day it is. If he can bookmark his day with familiarity, he is more likely to be comfortable with different and new things throughout the day.

As far as decorating goes, I only put out the things I really love. I talk to him about each of them, as a tradition and something “we do every single year as part of our family’s celebration”. Now that he is older, he remembers the nutcracker he picked out last year, and the advent calendar with the little baby Jesus that his brother likes to hide in various places for us to find. This sense of knowing what to expect helps. And, if I am honest, I kinda like the less cluttered, only decorate with things that I absolutely love approach.

2. Food

So food is an issue all the time for us, but it intensifies around the holidays. Part of it is that we eat at other people’s houses as part of celebrating the holidays. Part of it is that he is already stressed out about the routine and so then his eating gets all out of whack (Which, by the way, feels like a never ending cycle because if he doesn’t eat, he feels worse, and doesn’t eat because he feels bad, which makes him feel worse…you get the point).

What I have learned is that the holidays are not the time to teach eating skills to my son. In this time frame, we relax our quest to help him tolerate more and more foods, and just let him eat what he thinks he can. If this means he wants eggs when the rest of us are eating spaghetti? Fine. There is plenty of time the other ten and a half months of the year to work towards him eating a varied and balanced diet.

3. Sleep

Sleep was a big factor in the meltdowns of Christmas past. Christmas parties and church events, coupled with traveling to visit and celebrate with family (and therefore sleeping in an unfamiliar bed), meant less and less consistent bedtimes throughout the month, and more consistent stress, pressure and chaos for my son.

We do a lot less now. We will very rarely say yes to a party or event that conflicts with bedtime. It not only disrupts the routine (see above), but it cuts into time to sleep for a boy that desperately needs it function.

4. Travel

We do however, still travel. Quite a bit actually. The boys and I fly so they can see their dad around Thanksgiving, and again around Christmas every year. We also travel to see family and celebrate.

Routine, food, sleep? All messed up when we travel. But there is no way around it, so we do the best we can. Although the details of the travel are tough, my son LOVES seeing his family. He LOVES spending time with them. He LOVES being spoiled by them. And that, to me, makes it a good trade off. More than decorations, presents, trees, baking cookies, and advent calendars, he loves celebrating with his family. It’s a huge blessing, and so we figure out the travel.

5. Presents and Fixations

This is a new stressor that has just presented itself in the last couple of years. My son will fixate on his “Christmas List” for hours at a time. There is pressure and anxiety around this for him. He will often ask, “What should I ask for?” or say, “What if it’s not as good as I think it will be?”

We are trying to figure out how best to help him. What has lessened the anxiety lately is having me sit with him and read online reviews of what he is interested in. We discuss what people have written, and then he is usually a little less crazed over this part of our Christmas tradition.

This one makes me sad. As he gets older, this is causing him a ton of grief every year. It’s just another thing that is supposed to be fun, but just isn’t for him.

We try and reiterate that the presents are a bonus, but not the reason we celebrate Christmas anyway. We limit the number of presents per child to three. We do our best to help him.

So far, that’s all we’ve got on this one.


I read this list and I know why I am tired. I know why and I know it is temporary.

Because of Christmas, my son will not have to suffer from sensory issues and massive anxiety forever.

Because of Christmas, there is purpose and blessing in our lives, no matter how tired I may be.

Because of Christmas, there is hope and there is light.

Even with special needs. Even with meltdowns. Even with stress and anxiety and chaos.

Especially with special needs and meltdowns and stress and anxiety and chaos.

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:9

Wishing you light, hope and a little bit of rest this holiday season.

With love,


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  1. Rachel T. says:

    You really are so good at this parenting thing, Shawna! On the presents thing… When I was a kid, we always got the big Sears catalog, and my Mom would have me go through it page by page and mark everything that I liked. “Now, you’re not going to GET everything that you like…” she would say. But if you like it, put your initials on it. If I REALLY liked something, I’d underline my initials and put starts by it. And I would turn down the corner of the page… Now you can make “Wish Lists” online and you can send them to people. I would remind him that Wish Lists are just that… Wishes. They don’t have to be perfect. And you can edit them. And just cuz it’s on there, doesn’t mean that’s what you’re getting. It’s a suggestion. You’re just giving suggestions of what you THINK you MIGHT like. And you don’t have to like everything! That’s ok! If you get something you don’t like, then maybe we can donate it to, say, Good Will, and then we’ll take you and buy you something equivalent that you can pick out for yourself.

    I don’t know if those things would help with your son or not. But that’s how my parents handled it with me. Oh! And when I was marking those catalogs… I often marked things for other people that I thought THEY might like, too!

    1. Thank you so much, Rachel! Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you so much for encouraging me as a momma.

  2. Kendra Kurtz says:

    Shawna, Your Honesty and openness with your families struggles and triumphs help us more than you can know. Not only does it help us who struggle in the similarities, but it also helps those who have no clue why our children and family appear so different. You shine a bright light that illuminates a world that at times is very dark, giving many families hope and a calm assurance that we are not alone. A true sense of familiarity. Thank you so much for sharing your family with us. God bless you and your precious family throughout this blessed season.

  3. I am so right there with you on this one! My 8 year old has asperger’s/high functioning Autism and this time of year throws him for a serious loop every single year. He too thrives on consistency and sameness. The other morning while dropping him off for school, he started to meltdown…and listed for me all of the things that had been different over the past few days and how it was just too much for him to handle, “It’s just too different!!!!!” I love that he can so clearly tell my why he little world is off kilter…but it’s so hard this time of year to not run into things that are going to send him into a tail spin…This too shall pass. And you are so right, all of this ‘stuff’ makes me lean on Jesus more and makes me more mindful of why he came in the first place.

    I have so enjoyed your site since finding it a few weeks ago. Thank you for sharing with such openness.

    1. Welcome Melody! I am so glad you are here and really appreciate you sharing your experience.

  4. Jaci Van Wyhe says:

    “Because of Christmas, my son will not have to suffer from sensory issues and massive anxiety forever.” Such a perfect reminder that through all the stressful events (for us and our children) there is more to the picture. Our present moment isn’t our forever reality. Blessings on the rest of your holiday season!

    1. “Our present moment isn’t our forever reality.” So well said. Thank you Jaci!

  5. Oh wow! This is just what I needed. Thank you. The last part, about the reminder of why Jesus came in the first place…Yes. I need to print this and post it on my fridge, mirror, etc… Praying for peace this season for all our autistic, sensory issue, asperger kiddos. Hugs to all the moms and dads out there!

    1. Thank you so much for your sweet words, Amy. Praying for you and yours tonight.

  6. Can I offer a word of encouragement? My son is now 22 and I so remember the meltdowns, the hiding in the closet while everybody else celebrated, the not eating anything, etc. Now he understands and participates a little more each year. He looks forward to the traditions that used to bother him. Seeing his delight in shopping for the person whose name he drew in the family gift exchange this year was so very very sweet. He may still be mostly non verbal but you could see the thrill & pride as he did this task for someone he loves.

    I love that you can see past the difficulties and into the bigger picture! I am not sure I always did when my guy was little.

    1. Oh my goodness, yes! Thank you for the words of encouragement and for sharing so much hope. I think so many of us need to hear it!

  7. Katharine Harvard says:

    Thank you. I’m so glad I’m not the only one that wishes they could go back and give themselves a kick. My son doesn’t say please and thank you and never is grateful of presents etc. It has stopped some family members from seeing us at Christmas time. It took me years to understand it wasn’t my sons fault and he wasn’t being ungrateful it was just all to much for him. Now we do a toned down version and if people can’t fit in with us then they are not welcome. Ww keep our routine the same and fit everything in to suit it. Hope you all have a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year..xx

  8. I appreciate this so much, not so much as a parent (my children actually love the holidays) but as a sister of a special needs child. My older brother required (and still does) absolute routine and the holidays through him into a tail spin. I give my parents a lot of credit. When they were growing up, a child like my brother may have been institutionalized so the fact that he lived with them until his 50s is remarkable. However, I do wish they had been a little more cognizant of the difficulty with changes in routine. I think they knew it would happen but they were so unwilling to accommodate him in their desire to do everything together as a family. There were times I think my brother would have been much more happy to stay home with a family friend or sitter than to go to one more holiday function. I don’t ever remember him being given a choice. I also remember accusations of “you are ruining Christmas for everybody.” I realize that much of this was frustration and the lower-level of awareness of the times but it still hurts my heart to think of it. I know my simple holidays are due in large part to this part of our family history. You can’t judge people for past actions. I know my parents were doing the best they could with the knowledge and energy and resources they had but I appreciate the fact that people are now more aware and accepting of differences and do not have to fight so much to be “normal” whatever that is. God bless and Merry Christmas!

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