Surviving the Holidays

By Donna B. Wexler, SLP, Parent

The holiday season is often challenging for most of us. For our family members with special needs, it is even more stressful. We need to employ all of our "social thinking skills" during this season when we are attending parties, family gatherings, shopping, traveling, etc. How can we do this gracefully and comfortably?

What are social skills anyway? I prefer to think of using social skills as "social thinking" or using my "flexible" thinking brain. Social thinking, as defined by Michelle Winner, SLP, is the ability to adapt effectively to the people and situations around us. ( These are ever changing, so we can't teach our children exactly what to do in each situation, as no two situations are the same! Social skills are not really "skills", but rather the ability to employ "flexible thinking" across environments. If our social perception is impaired, or if we have sensory challenges, this flexibility in thinking about others can be exceptionally difficult. Below are some tips/reminders to use during this busy and exciting time of year.


At all costs, employ a routine when there is no routine. Many of our children's lives are turned upside down. They are out of their normal routine, ie., school is closed, guests are visiting, we are traveling to strange surroundings. As the parent, it is your job to set a routine for the days of "no routine". For example: keep consistent mealtimes, employ a regular bedtime. Use your social thinking to think "how might my child feel with his/her disrupted routine".


Telling what will happen by using pictures or written words will help greatly to build predictability. No surprises is the best way of thinking. Do not assume that when you tell your child what will happen, they will remember. VISUAL is the key word.

  • Create lists for bedtime, what to take in the car, places you'll visit
  • Create travel books showing the sequence of the day's events
  • Provide schedules
  • Give choices
  • Build in rewards

(See for specifics on creating visual schedules.)


In preparing for new events, give yourself extra time to get ready and get going. For example, going to see Santa can be exciting for some, and it can be a scary nightmare for others. Using visual strategies and talking about events well in advance can help to ease anxiety. Use pictures and role play to get your child ready for the experience. Write social stories ( about what is most likely going to occur.
Talk about the possibilities (e.g., long line, lots of people) to prepare for being flexible.


Do not ask your child to perform for relatives. Since they are already "stressed" by all the changes of the season, allow them to "be". Don't ask them to "Show Grandma how you...."


For example, instead of saying, “What did you get for Christmas? Tell Uncle Joe!” You can say “Uncle Joe, Tommy got a new Lego construction set and a Star Wars shirt for Christmas.” Be flexible and proud that your child has the stamina to just be with the family!


Describe possible behaviors. Do this in a gentle, matter of fact manner. Describe your child’s challenges. You do not need to be apologetic. Your acceptance and coping will lead to their acceptance and flexible thinking. You can suggest ways that others might help to make things easier for your special needs child.


Do not insist that your child be “in the center” of the action at all times. It may be more comfortable for them to be with “the family”, for example, for short periods of time with respites to a “safe space”. Watch for their tolerance level.


Take along familiar foods, toys, objects, music, etc. Do whatever is necessary to help your loved feel safe, secure and loved.


You know what to do! These are simply reminders to keep you and your family members, even your typical children, ready for having a happy, safe and loving holiday season. By adapting to each setting, thinking about how others might be feeling or thinking, you will be using your “social thinking”.

Challenge yourself to be flexible, loving and supportive of yourself and others. How can you adapt to your situation and surroundings? What are others thinking in the same situation? It is my hope that this will make the holidays all that you wish they would be!!

Websites to help you through:


How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids will Talk

(Faber, Mazlich)

Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME (Michelle Winner)

Visual Strategies to Improve Communication (Linda Hodgdon)


*Reprinted with permission from Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Copyright [2012] by Parenting Special Needs LLC.