Special Needs Parenting: 8 Tips for successful family get-togethers

Amy reveals ways to help your child feel comfortable and adapt to social situations.

Photo: kali9/iStockphoto

How do your kids react around crowds? We asked parents to share their best strategies for surviving and thriving during family gatherings. Read on for party-tested tips:

Update the family about your child

Got relatives you seldom see? Email or write them before the party. Share your child’s interests and explain how to interact with him. For example, “Josh really likes to talk about pets. Ask him to tell you about his new gerbil Frances.” If your child is freaked by hugs and kisses from loving aunties, give them a heads up. “Josh doesn’t like to be kissed. But he would love a ‘high-five’ from you.”

Arrive early and stake out escape spots

Be the first to arrive so your child can adjust to the setting before having to deal with everyone. Case out quiet spots to retreat when needed. During parties, one mom sits quietly with her son in another room. “We chat together about oceans and trains (his favourite topics). People come and talk with him where he is comfortable.”
 
Other parents have parties at their own house only. Then, kids can escape to their own room or to the computer if they feel overwhelmed.

Bring distractions and food

“I always have an iPad or iPod handy with music and games,” says a mom of two kids with autism. “It does the trick every time — whether waiting for a plane or sitting at the table. Everyone understands.”
 
Other parents recommend: toys, books, a weighted blanket for calming and headphones to cancel out overwhelming noise. If your child has food restrictions, limited food preferences or allergies, bring foods you know they will eat.

Discuss gift-giving with relatives

Some of our kids don’t react to receiving a gift. One mom says, “I’m straight forward with my family. I tell them he may be more interested in hearing the wrapping paper rip than the actual present. Please don’t be offended if he shows no interest in the gift.”
 
If relatives do want to give your child a gift, give them specific suggestions for something that really fits your child’s interests.

Plan breaks

One parent tells her daughter to use a code word (her cat’s name) when she needs a break. Getting outside to burn off energy walking around the block or tobogganing can work wonders.

Bring help

Yes, you know your child best. But that doesn’t mean you must be her sole supervisor at gatherings. Consider bringing a support worker so that you can also visit with guests. Or show the cousins the best way to interact with your child. Maybe they can play Wii, an iPad game or colour together.

Take comfy clothes

If your child has sensory issues, a new dress, party shoes and tights may feel tortuous. Instead, deck them out in their favourite pants or sweats topped by a pretty sweatshirt. Your relatives will understand.

Adapt traditions

 The mom of a 3-year-old says her son couldn’t cope with a yearly party tradition. Each child sat quietly in a circle as one gift at a time was opened. “My son wanted to stay in another room playing with trains,” she says. “He had a meltdown when they tried to get him to join the other kids.” Now they let him play happily nearby with his trains. Bottom line: Do whatever works for you and your kids.

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