I wonder how many parents of children with special needs have had this kind of experience. The holidays are approaching, and you want to give your child a special day filled with food and fun and frolic. You make plans, you prepare holiday treats, you buy cute outfits for the day. You know the weather will be perfect. And the day comes, and your hopes are high. The excitement fills the air. But then, it all comes crashing down in a heap of holiday mishap.
Holidays are by nature infused with all the "stuff" that can catapult a child in a sensory storm. Noise, chaos, and a different routine easily contribute to a sensitive child feeling like his world just turned upside-down. Different foods, unfamiliar decorations, and boisterous activities can be jarring to a child with special needs.
For parents, our hopes are pinned on making it a great day, full of wonderful memories and frame-worthy photos. For kids with special needs (autism in particular), their apple cart has been upset. Well-intentioned parents may not see that coming.
When my son Zach was a toddler, we thought that a community Easter egg hunt in a local park would be a fun way to spend Easter morning. Since it was an outdoor activity, it seemed a perfect fit.
What we didn't expect was the ribbon set up to keep the participants away from the hunting grounds, nor the dew-soaked grass. And, apparently, due to sunny skies, it seemed like the entire city showed up to find chocolate eggs and meet the Easter Bunny.
"BANG!" A starting pistol rudely signaled the start of the egg hunt. Along with the screaming horde of children in pastel-colored clothing, the scene proved overwhelming. Zach plopped down in the wet grass, covered his ears, and cried.
Kids were jumping and running everywhere. They gleefully stuffed baskets and bags with eggs they found among the grass and bushes. We formed a human teepee over Zach on the ground to block the noise and chaos.
Water always calmed him, so over to the bank of the river we went. And there went those new little khakis and new little shoes into the muddy, gritty sand. You swoop in to try to salvage the clothes, but then realize there's no point. That's when you have to just stand back and laugh.
Meeting the Easter Bunny later on did not provide the Kodak moment we anticipated. Nope. One look at those monstrous eyes and giant ears, and it was over. No foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, no picture with the Bunny, no more cute toddler outfit. We headed back to the car.
It's easy for special needs parents to become dismayed about holidays. You only want to give your kids a day to treasure. As Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote: The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men/ Gang aft agley. Our plans can and often do go wrong despite our best intentions; it's that way for everyone. Burns' 1785 poem shows us this has been the human condition for centuries.
So when it comes to giving our special needs children the holiday celebrations we want them to have, we have to realize that our plans may pop like bubbles - but it's okay. Those are still memories. If a child with special needs can't access a celebration or tradition the way others expect her to, then we as parents can find creative ways to have celebrations they can access and enjoy.
Holiday plans don't have to go out the window. It took me a long time to realize this. I spent many a holiday trying to force it to go the way "it should." We just found new ways to honor holidays. Does it still sting sometimes...when a Christmas stocking is tossed aside, or you have to turn away noisy Trick-or-Treaters due to a sensory issue? Yep.
Holidays with special needs become a new dance to learn. The steps may feel awkward at times, but you get to pick the music. Eventually, you waltz through holidays with grace and style. And, if you're like me, you're dancing in a favorite pair of socks instead of heels.