The feast of the Nativity approaches, and with it, anxiety.

How will your family get along when everyone’s home? How will the kids do when you travel to visit relatives? Will you be welcomed at the church when you finally get a chance to go? For families with special needs, these questions are layered with the weight of additional needs.

Holiday Tips for Making Christmas Easier for Special Needs Families

This week I’m sharing what I’ve learned from teaching and living with persons with special needs. Bookmark and share these best practices for home, travel, and church with special needs during the holidays. 

THE GIFT OF 12 DAYS

Spread out gifts over 12 Days. Instead of subjecting sensitive family members -and let’s face it, lots of other folks, too!- to the overwhelm that comes from gift-opening sprees, give only one gift per day to each person. This will allow all family members and guests the extra processing time they need to enjoy each gift. It also allows for experience gifts, such as board games, museum trips, and shows, to stand out in a day. Families who need more time to recover from experiences will also appreciate the lower emotional, physical, and sensory load of spreading out activities.

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Pick services to attend that are not as crowded, or arrange away spaces with the church (see more below about Away Spaces) before attending. Many churches have a bride room or a spare room where you might step away to calm and tend yourself or family members. Ask ahead of time to make sure that the space is available. Churches can help by advising ushers or greeters to help make those spaces available to families who need them.

If you have time off over the holidays, consider offering a few hours of your time to a family with special needs. Maybe you are able to help care for a family member so a parent or caregiver can rest or shop for a few hours. Maybe you can run an errand or wrap presents for or with them. Your presence might be one of the best presents you can give during the 12 days of Christmas.

PROVIDE STRUCTURED TIME TOGETHER WITH RITUALS AND ROUTINES

Many types of special needs affect social communication. To include everyone most easily, it helps to plan for structured time together. These might include board games appropriate to developmental level, puzzles, ritualized meals, coloring, stringing popcorn, or following a star around the yard to search for the Christ child.

  • Games with low barriers to entry include cooperative games like our family’s favorite, Obstacles (affiliate link), or matching games such as the Nativity matching game you can print from the file below. If you happen to have a family of sensory-seekers who don’t mind loud noises, this nerdy cooperative game Spaceteam (affiliate link) has a lower entry level for pragmatic communication combined with higher vocabulary (particularly fun for many people with ADHD or autism).
  • Tea or cocoa or cookies and milk: Routines that are always the same, such as sitting down to tea or cocoa or having cookies and milk, can reduce stress for family members with special needs. Predictability is especially helpful for people who have challenges affecting transitions. Pour tea/cocoa and serve in the same order at the same places at the table each day. Serve cookies and milk at the same time and in the same place each day. The more variables you can eliminate through consistency, the more accessible you make your gathering.

AWAY SPACES

Many people with special needs will flourish if they have a small, separate space for calm and relaxed routines such as building with LEGO/DUPLO/wooden blocks, reading, or listening to music or silence.

  • If you’re spending the holidays away, ask about setting up a special Christmas closet as away space at relatives house. If the guest room has a large closet, for instance, see if you can borrow a string of Christmas lights and some large cushions to transform the space into a small reading/quiet nook.
  • Consider setting up a permanent away space in a closet as a gift to your autistic family members (Narnia or other literary theme optional!). In my house, we have a few closets set up this way–we even have a twin bed set up in a napping closet for when people need to recover from allergy exposure or too much light. You could also take the idea of a prayer closet literally and set up a closet as a small prayer corner.

KEEP FOODS SIMPLE

Share simple, familiar foods for comfort rather than focusing on novelty or show. Many people on the autism spectrum or with a variety sensory differences have trouble with new smells, textures, and colors in foods.

If your family member or guest suffers from food allergies or restrictions, make sure to have several safe options for them to eat.

If your family member or guest needs special equipment to eat, such as bowls, curved spoons or bendy straws, make sure to have them on hand and at the table for group meals.

If your family member uses a G-tube or other special feeding system, practice giving thanks for nourishment and the means to provide it. Plan your schedule with the rest of the family or guests so that feeding time is not loud or stressful or overlapping a fun time. If you’re hosting, consult your guests so that your group plan considers feeding time for people with special feeding needs.

Consider putting your display efforts into table setting rather than changing foods.

  • Presenting safe and familiar foods in pretty dishes or with lovely table arrangements can make a meal feel special while still including everyone.
  • If you have guests with visual impairments, they might still enjoy touching roses at their place setting. When I have hosted blind friends in the past, I clipped a few flowers with different textures to put on their napkins so that they could share the joy of the decorations.

BOUNDARIES AND BARRIERS

Learn and share attention cues.

  • Explain to guests or relatives how to get your family member’s attention and to not move the person as a first resort or without consent. It’s important to respect the person with a disability, neurodivergence, or impairment and not to treat that person like a prop rather than a human.
  • Each person may express attention differently, so it’s important to let others know what the signs are. Some persons might pause and turn their face toward you without making eye contact, for instance. Others might have a speech output device phrase or a cut out symbol to indicate that they’re listening. Share the signs of attention to prevent misunderstanding.
  • Talking to someone who isn’t hearing you either due to impairments or attention difference can lead to frustration for all members of the interaction. Establish attention cues at the beginning of visits to help further communication. This might mean a hand signal to ask someone to engage a hearing aid, coming alongside someone into a field of vision, using an alternative communication system, using sign language, or speaking at different volumes.

Provide hearing barriers.

  • The sounds of groups and background noise can be overwhelming for many persons with sensory differences. Provide noise-blocking earmuffs such as these (affiliate link), or have different activity zones with lower and louder noise levels to help everyone self-regulate. If you have several guests or family members with earmuffs, you can even provide Christmas stickers so that they can decorate their pair. You might also incorporate a “Quiet Zone” or “Silent Night” sign into your decor in order to let everyone know about the quiet area of your home or gathering.

SENSORY SOOTHING

Provide for sensory needs such as rocking or jumping.

  • One of the biggest helps for sensory soothing is the back and forth motion of rocking chairs or swings.
  • If you have space in your home or church for rocking chairs, make them accessible during holiday travel times. They will help ease anxiety for people in your environment.
  • Consider packing a folding camp rocking chair or an over-the-door playground swing (affiliate links) if you travel to visit relatives without access to swings or rockers.

Provide or bring along tactile options like kinetic sand, especially if you’re in a hands-off environment. Some relatives have lots of nice things on display to look at but not touch.

Easily available multi-sensory options:

  • Cutting out cookies or salt dough ornaments.
  • Kinetic sand or traditional sandboxes.
  • Snow or fake snow play. (Link leads to several fake snow options.)
  • Holiday scented bubbles or bubble bath.
  • Touching the Christmas tree while decorating.
  • Watching Christmas lights.

TEACHING THE CHRISTMAS STORY

Whether you’re teaching at home or at church, use the whole room and whole bodies to teach. Many people with differences in sensory processing think best when they can move their bodies and think with their hands.

  • Churches can consider having sensory-friendly Sunday school options such as plastic bins of cracked corn (or popcorn kernels if you can’t get to an animal feed store) when talking about the animals at the Nativity, and be prepared to allow children to play with it during the entire lesson. [I will update this page soon with a free Accessible Sunday School video lesson using cracked corn!]
  • Have faux sheep skin for everyone to touch or for children to lie on when you talk about the Nativity story. Sensory anchors are huge attention boosters!
  • Encourage sign language for light or stars and encourage happy sounds that can be made by children with speech challenges for talking about a room full of animals.

Use sturdy Nativity sets to teach the Christmas story. Some customs you might include:

  • Set up the Nativity set at the beginning of Advent, either all together or adding an element each week.
  • Hide baby Jesus until Christmas Eve. Put him somewhere in the room and have the children hunt for Jesus before bed.
  • Move the wise men around the house for each of the 12 days, so that they arrive at the manger on the 12th Day of Christmas.

Alternative Communication:

Nativity Visual Vocabulary
  • Work with your speech therapist or your software system to add the elements needed to tell the Nativity story into the speech output device or AAC system of your family member. You don’t want to get to Christmas Eve and find that your family member cannot say, “angel” with his/her device.
  • Download the free Visual Nativity Card PDF  printable below (or print from image above). You can use the full page as a choice  board or cut out the cards for sequencing or matching with the written words. You can also print two copies, cut out the cards, and use them to play a memory matching game.Nativity Visual Vocabulary
centering activities

Include everyone into the group by means of centering activities rather than expectations to sit still and listen. Centering activities that create a group include kinetic sand bins, sensory bins, and giant playsilk or parachute play.

Here’s an example of my family centering with a playsilk:

You can also modify a playsilk or parachute in order to include persons with mobility challenges. When I taught a children’s choir, one of our singers was a boy with cerebral palsy who could not hold onto silks with his hands. I tied or sewed hair bands and scrunchies to all of our group silks so that he was attached to the group activity. This modification also helps children with dyspraxia from Down Syndrome, autism, and other motor coordinating challenges.

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Tie or sew a large elastic headband or scrunchy onto a playsilk. The playsilk can then be attached to a mobility device or a person’s arm, depending on their preference, so that they can participate in the group activity.

I hope these ideas will help you have more joy and less stress this Christmas season. See my Advent with Autism Guide for more tips.

Share your tips in the comments. What helps your special needs family stay centered at Christmas?