Strategies to help Special Needs Kids with Holiday Stress

. December 1, 2016.
Betsy Stoelt LMSW, a clinical social worker at Eastern Michigan University’s Autism Collaborative Center, invites families to choose joy 
during this season
Betsy Stoelt LMSW, a clinical social worker at Eastern Michigan University’s Autism Collaborative Center, invites families to choose joy during this season

Let’s face it: the holiday season brings joy to our lives, but can also bring a lot of stress. All of the parties, festivities, events, and activities of the season can feel overwhelming to everyone, especially children with special needs. Betsy Stoelt LMSW, a clinical social worker at Eastern Michigan University’s Autism Collaborative Center, shared key strategies to help families choose joy.

“You set up situations for success when you can give yourself permission to change or cancel plans if your child is having a challenging day,” Stoelt explained. In addition to that great advice, use the tips below to choose joy this holiday season.

Pick and Choose

It might be difficult to choose between your co-workers Hanukkah party or the family Christmas party, but saying “Yes” to all the invitations of the holidays can be too much. Choose what events your family will attend; think about each event and imagine how your child will respond. Create a visual calendar together; visual reminders support communication and help to make abstract concepts more concrete for children with special needs. Prepare a social story about the upcoming event that will help your child know what is going to happen. Online free printable social stories can be tailored to your individual situation.

Holiday Shopping

Another aspect of the holidays that can bring stress for children is shopping. Children may struggle with the noise and business of the typical mall environment. To create a less stressful shopping experience, shop at farmers markets and local businesses that draw smaller crowds. Have a sensory bag of tricks with you when you shop to give your child a way to handle the crowds and busy stores with bright lights. For example, you could use fidgets, noise-cancelling headphones, or chewing gum. Give positive feedback to your children when they follow through with expectations by participating cooperatively in holiday shopping.

Ruth Berean, President of the Washtenaw Learning Disabilities Association wants to help families enjoy the holiday season.

Ruth Berean, President of the Washtenaw Learning Disabilities Association wants to help families enjoy the holiday season.

Attending Parties

Going into unfamiliar environments can cause anxiety for a child with special needs. Before attending a party, go through pictures to talk about people who will be there, bring a favorite comfort item of your child’s to the party, and create a signal ahead of time that your child can give to you if they need a break from the situation. Ruth Berean from Washtenaw Learning Disabilities Association, a nonprofit organization that serves people with learning disabilities in Washtenaw County, explained that understood.org is a a great online resource for parents to find practical suggestions to support your child with special needs through various challenging situations, such as anxiety caused by attending holiday parties.

Choosing Joy

Remember, it is the in-between times that we most remember: the first snowfall of the winter or the neighborhood decorated with twinkling lights. While holidays can bring stress, implementing supportive strategies for your child with special needs may help to create a more joyous season for your family.


My Turn is a year-long program created for families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders by the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. Participating organizations take turns hosting free events on the second Sunday of the month that offer a less stimulating and crowd-free environment. Each program lasts two hours, allowing visitors to explore at their own pace, includes hands-on activities, and the option to take a break in a quiet room if desired. Past events have been held at University of Michigan museums, Therapeutic Riding, the Leslie Science and Nature Center, and the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. There are still a few events left in the series. The Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum will host the next event 9:30-11:30am December 11.

My Turn events are free for registered attendees,
but space is limited, and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Visit myturncommunity.org for registration information.