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Help with Holiday Hurdles for Special Needs Kids

Holiday Traditions

Special needs parents and caregivers come up against the spectre of expectations on a daily basis, but the holidays can bring up even more challenges. You may have your ideal holiday all planned out in your mind, or be burdened with visions of holidays past, but your child with special needs may be unable or unwilling to go along with the images in your head. This is certainly true to for typical kids and teens, too!

Religious services

While you may get comfort from attending some form of worship, to a person with special needs a church, temple or other holy place may seem scary. There are strange smells, loud sounds and crowds. This can all be too over stimulating for certain people.

Some places of worship are starting to offer services geared to those with special needs, or may offer an alternative activity while the parents attend services. If these options are not available in your area, ask for them to be initiated – or help to start them yourself. Headphones, earplugs and even surgical masks may help with excessive sensory input. Weighted vests or special fidgets or stuffed animals may offer a sense of being grounded or calmness.

Social expectations

Let’s say you open a present from Great Aunt Ethel. It is a sweater, and you don’t really like it, but you know that you should still say thank you. Some people with special needs lack that politeness filter and may blurt out their honest feelings, such as “that is an ugly sweater.” Not only is Great Aunt Ethel offended but the parents of the child with special needs may also come under fire for not teaching the child “good manners.” Too bad no one taught Great Aunt Ethel good taste, then this awkward situation would have been avoided.

Maybe waiting to open gifts in private could help spare Great Aunt Ethel’s feelings, and of course a polite thank you note afterwards would be appreciated.

Holiday Gatherings and Visits – even to the North Pole

Visiting friends and family can be challenging due to strange environments, new people and  changes in routine.

Bring familiar items and if necessary, favorite foods you know your child will eat. Social stories where you can rehearse acceptable responses are helpful, and de-sensitization practices may help make new places less problematic when you visit them beforehand while they are empty.

Your holiday tradition may include a visit to Santa. As a former Macy’s Herald Square Elf I can tell you that as nice a person as Santa is, to a small child this giant man in a vibrant red suit can seem terrifying! Screams, crying and squirming are common responses even from neurotypical children. If your child with special needs truly can’t handle an encounter with Mr. Kringle please don’t force them – you are trying to make a happy memory for kids, not torture them.

Check local malls or a We Rock The Spectrum location for Sensitive Santa, which is a crowd-free visit with subdued lighting and low or no music. Many special needs families have gotten their very first happy holiday photo thanks to these events. Waving to Santa from across the mall or a photo with Santa far in the background may also be a fun alternative to standing in a long line to meet him face to face.

It isn’t just visiting the jolly elf that may bring up tough situations – Great Aunt Ethel may bring her own set of problems. At her house the rules may be different, which is difficult and possibly even upsetting for individuals with special needs. Even if she comes to your house she may upset the usual environment; she may wear a strong perfume or change the usual mealtimes. While you may want that photo of your child and Great Aunt Ethel snuggling by the fire, your child may want nothing to do with her.

Give your child some space. A group photo may be more tolerable for your child. After some time your child may become comfortable with new people and new settings. Let them ease in at their own speed.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!

Editor’s NoteAutism Speaks is a co-sponsor of Sensory-Friendly Santa. Click here to find one in your area.

3 Things Parents Can Do To Help Kids Calm Under Pressure

Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and control our own behavior, thoughts or feelings altering them in accordance with the demands of a situation. While we often expect children to be well-modulated, it is most helpful when we teach them what being regulated “feels like”.

Whether you teach, love or parent children from pre-school to high school, having the “felt sense” of internal regulation is helpful at any age. Here are 3 simple activities to help students experience self-regulation.  RIGHT CLICK on the IMAGE to download for personal and professional use.

1. Talk with your children about the fact that we all have an engine inside us that revs up or calms down depending on what we are doing. When we feel excited, anxious or nervous our engines rev up. We need to be our brains “best coaches” by helping our bodies calm down.

2. Model for the child how to “coach” their brain.

Step 1: Help your child begin to notice his own escalation. “Let’s talk about what it feels like when you are in class and your teacher calls on you. What happens to your body? Does your heart begin to race? Do you think, ‘It’s my turn now, she’s going to ask me a question.’”

“In that moment, you want to coach your brain to be alert while your body remains calm. So when you hear your name called, take a big deep breath and turn toward your teacher so that you can hear what she asks you.”

Step 2: “When we feel anxious we tend to rush, so remember, go ‘Slow-Mo’. Slowing down and being present will help you to focus, think and respond.”

3. Practice. Role-play different scenarios. “What happens when…” How will we be our ‘brain’s best coach’? What will we say to ourselves? What will we notice about how our body feels? What will we do to remain alert yet calm?  Think about a time when you feel calm. How does your body feel then? That’s the feeling we are aiming for when we feel anxious or stressed.

Helping children begin to be mindful of the felt sense of the difference in feeling revved up or calmed down is the beginning to better self-control.


70-play-hi-res-150x197Written for teachers, educators, and clinicians whose work involves playing, talking or teaching children who would benefit from better executive function and social-emotional learning skills, 70 Play Activities incorporates over 100 research studies into printable worksheets, handouts, and guided scripts with step-by-step directions, to empower children to learn and behave better. “With 70 Play Activities we aim to improve the trajectory of children’s learning by integrating the newest neuroscience with activities children love!” With over 70 activities designed to improve thinking, self-regulation, learning and behavior, your tool-kit will be full and your creative brain will be inspired to craft your own meaningful exercises. 70 Play Activities is available at


Video: What Exactly is Cerebral Palsy? How Do I Know…

About one in 400 children born alive has cerebral palsy. In this video Dr Lucinda Carr explains the causes, symptoms and treatment

Editor’s Note: Video Highlights

Cerebral Palsy:

  • Describes a persistent disorder of movement or posture caused by an abnormality of the immature brain
  • It’s surprisingly common and occurs in one in 400 live births
  • And ranges in severity from mild to severe

Causes – many different:

  • For the majority, the causes occur prior to birth. The brain may not develop normally in the womb, due to genetics, infection or trauma
  • A small group experience problems around the time of birth although this is uncommon
  • The highest-risk group are children born prematurely (40% of children with cerebral palsy were born prematurely)

Signs / Symptoms

  • An early ultrasound brain scan may show some damage
  • “Fits” shortly after the baby is born
  • Problems with movement when the child begins to develop
    • Not moving their hands and legs normally
    • Not beginning to sit or walk when expected (developmental milestones)

Treatment – once diagnosis is made

  • A (UK) child will meet with a local child development team* – typically a doctor and a physiotherapist.
  • It may be helpful to involve speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists at this point.
  • The aim is to help identify what the child finds difficult and help the with this.
  • The common aim is to help the child in their movements – to keep the muscles strong and of good length and avoid contractures that could require orthopaedic surgery to correct
    • Doing stretching and strengthening exercises
    • Using splints and orthotics where necessary
    • Botox injections may help to relax the stiff muscles
  • As they grow we look to their needs as young adults

Most young people with cerebral palsy are fully independent and have full, active lives

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.

* It is likely that a similar set of doctors would get involved at this point in the US

NHS Choices logo



Do-It-Yourself Braces: Just Say No and Save Your Child’s Smile

As Do-It-Yourself (DIY) crafts and projects are climbing in popularity among teens, the trend has surprisingly migrated into the field of orthodontics. Believe it or not, teenagers across the United States are taking their smile into their own hands. According to the American Association of Orthodontists, almost 13% of dentists are seeing patients who have tried DIY teeth straightening – most of which have experienced irreversible damage.

In desperate attempts to straighten their smiles, teenagers are resorting to rubber bands, dental floss, fishing line, paper clips, and even homemade retainers. Although these methods can potentially move teeth, dentists everywhere are warning against these dangerous materials.

Initially gaining traction with teens on social media, DIY braces can lead to serious infection and permanent damage in the teeth and gums. Constant pressure, unsupervised by an orthodontic expert, can cause teeth to become extruded or out of socket. Tiny hair rubber bands are known for sliding upward and disappearing into the gums, becoming embedded in the gum tissue.

Many of these cases cannot be repaired, meaning patients who originally tried DIY braces to save time and money are now required to undergo complete oral reconstruction surgery. Overall, patients are paying almost double of the initial cost of orthodontic treatment just to reverse severe damage.

The number of teens attempting DIY braces is so alarming that the American Association of Orthodontists has reissued a public service announcement to warn teenagers of the dangers of this trend.

If you think your child is attempting to straighten his or her smile with DIY braces, put a stop to it immediately and schedule an appointment with your dentist. It could save your child’s smile!

The Holidays: From Nuts to Trees What Makes Your Family Sneeze

Everyone gets stressed around the holidays- everyone. Too many things to get done and not enough time during the day wears us all down and leaves us teetering on the fine line of “Did I take care of that?” What makes it even more difficult for those with food allergies is when you factor in some hidden allergy triggers among the spirited chaos. What can be meant as a simple holiday item could turn out to be something so much worse if research is not done correctly and labels are not paid attention to. And although there is never a good time for an allergic reaction to happen, the last thing that you would want to do is create a new memory that ends in hysterics or critical conditions. Let me share a few guidelines so that your holiday list will include lessening the chances of an allergy trigger.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire This is a typical theme from as far back as many of us can remember hearing about. It’s a cozy memory until someone doesn’t pay attention to the labels on your bundle of wood. Many people may not even notice that some brands of firewood contain nut particles (such as pecan or walnut) because of the type of tree that it came from.  There are also some fireplace logs such as Duraflame that use nut shells in their quick lighting logs. Although tree nuts and peanuts (which are legumes) are different, they may both be ingredients that you do not want to mix with your family festivities. My tip: learn before you burn.

Pick a tree but not that one The tradition of choosing a tree for the holidays can also bring about a handful of invisible allergy triggers. That beautiful tree that is going to join you for a few weeks may contain up to fifty types of mold. Those with mold allergies could spend their holidays coughing, sneezing and rubbing their itchy eyes instead of celebrating. Opt for an artificial tree or hose down your real tree and let it dry before bringing it inside. Just keep in mind that there are also those who can also be allergic to artificial trees as well.

Let it snow Regardless of what the weather is like in your area, that cozy scene of snowy days during the holidays can be easily created with artificial snow. The danger in this- the can that dispenses the snow. The aerosol in the can also emits chemicals as well as the fake snow. Asthma sufferers could potentially be affected by these chemicals. Have your faux snow already in please a day or two before visitors arrive and avoid using the product when guests are present. For an easier, allergy-friendly option try making paper snowflakes.

Candles light the way Nothing is more festive and inviting than being surrounded by candles. Pair that with your holiday décor and it truly changes the feeling of any room. However, it could also change how someone is feeling when they walk into that room. Ingredients in candles can be just as important to pay attention to as food ingredients. Candles can contain oils and substances that can kick off an instant reaction for anyone who is hypersensitive to fragrances or the ingredients themselves. This includes soy candles as soy is fast becoming an ingredient that people are avoiding. Keep your guests in the holiday spirit by using fragrance free candles or battery operated candles.

Don’t forget the food All of us enjoy indulging in goodies, it’s a given but this is not the time to lower your allergy radar. Thankfully, there are companies that provide allergy-friendly chocolates, holiday supplies and more to allow everyone to celebrate with a smile. Chocolate Gelt items are nut free, dairy free and parve food items for those who observe Hanukkah. Amanda’s Own Confections offers both Christmas and Hanukkah goodies that are free from dairy, tree nut, peanut, egg and gluten.  Everyone with allergies should always be cautious but they should also be able to enjoy their holiday safely.

The holidays are about celebrating together and enjoying the time that we get to spend together. Remember to ask your family, friends and guests if they have any allergies that you can try to avoid to keep them more comfortable during their stay with you. Always check labels and consider simple ways to avoid turning a welcoming visit into an unplanned allergy catastrophe. With a bit of organization and fact-finding, happy holidays can stay happy for all.

Choosing a C-Section: What Is It and When Is It The Best Option?

A caesarean section, or C-section, is an operation to deliver your baby through a cut made in your tummy and womb.

The cut is usually made across your tummy, just below your bikini line.

A caesarean is a major operation that carries a number of risks, so it’s usually only done if it’s the safest option for you and your baby.

Around one in every four to five pregnant women in the UK has a caesarean.*

Why caesareans are carried out

A caesarean may be recommended as a planned (elective) procedure or done in an emergency if it’s thought a vaginal birth is too risky. They’re usually performed after the 38th week of pregnancy.

A caesarean may be carried out because:

  • your baby is in the breech position (feet first) and your doctor has been unable to turn them by applying gentle pressure to your tummy, or you would prefer they didn’t try this
  • you have a low-lying placenta  (placenta praevia)
  • you have pregnancy-related high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia)
  • you have certain infections, such as a first genital herpes infection occurring late in pregnancy or untreated HIV
  • your baby isn’t getting enough oxygen and nutrients – sometimes this may mean the baby needs to be delivered immediately
  • your labour isn’t progressing or there’s excessive vaginal bleeding

If there’s time to plan the procedure, your midwife or doctor will discuss the benefits and risks of a caesarean compared with a vaginal birth.

Asking for a caesarean

Some women choose to have a caesarean for non-medical reasons. If you ask your midwife or doctor for a caesarean when there aren’t medical reasons, they will explain the overall benefits and risks of a caesarean compared with a vaginal birth.

If you’re anxious about giving birth, you should be offered the chance to discuss your anxiety with a healthcare professional who can offer support during your pregnancy and labour.

If after discussion and support you still feel that a vaginal birth isn’t an acceptable option, you’re entitled to have a planned caesarean.

What happens during a caesarean

Most caesareans are carried out under spinal or epidural anaesthetic. This mean you’ll be awake, but the lower part of your body is numbed so you won’t feel any pain.

During the procedure:

  • a screen is placed across your body so you can’t see what’s being done – the doctors and nurses will let you know what’s happening
  • a cut about 10-20cm long will usually be made across your lower tummy and womb so your baby can be delivered
  • you may feel some tugging and pulling during the procedure
  • you and you birth partner will be able to see and hold your baby as soon as they’ve been delivered

The whole operation normally takes about 40-50 minutes.

Occasionally a general anaesthetic, where you’re asleep, may be used, particularly if the baby needs to be delivered more quickly.

Read more about how a caesarean is carried out.

Recovering from a caesarean

Recovering from a caesarean usually takes longer than recovering from a vaginal delivery. You might need to stay in hospital for three or four days, compared with one or two days for a vaginal birth.

You may experience some discomfort in your tummy for the first few days, and you’ll be offered painkillers to help with this.

When you go home, you’ll need to take things easy at first. You may need to avoid some activities such as driving for six weeks or so.

The wound in your tummy will eventually form a scar. This may be red and obvious at first, but it should fade with time and will often be hidden in your pubic hair.

Read more about recovering from a caesarean.

Risks of a caesarean

A caesarean is generally a very safe procedure, but like any type of surgery it carries a certain amount of risk.

It’s important to be aware of the possible complications, particularly if you’re considering having a caesarean for non-medical reasons.

Possible complications include:

  • infection of the wound or womb lining
  • blood clots
  • excessive bleeding
  • damage to nearby areas, such as the bladder or the tubes that connect the kidneys and bladder (ureter)
  • temporary breathing difficulties in your baby
  • accidentally cutting your baby when your womb is opened

Read more about the risks of a caesarean.

Future pregnancies after a caesarean

If you have a baby by caesarean, it doesn’t necessarily mean that any babies you have in the future will also have to be delivered this way.

Most women who have had a caesarean section can safely have a vaginal delivery for their next baby, known as vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC).

However, you may need some extra monitoring during labour just to make sure everything is progressing well.

Some women may be advised to have another caesarean if they have another baby. This depends on whether a caesarean is still the safest option for them and their baby.

For more information, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has a leaflet on birth options after previous caesarean section (PDF, 357kb).

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.

*1 in 3 pregnant women in the U.S. has a caesarean