They call it “the most wonderful time of the year,” but the holiday season can be a stressful time for people with disabilities and their families.
Thanksgiving dinner can be difficult for those with developmental disabilities because of behavioral and sensory issues. Judgements from some family members as well as other diners in restaurant settings can also make this iconic American tradition unpleasant. Over the last fourteen years, Boulder Colorado’s Zolo Southwestern Grill addresses this issue by offering a free traditional turkey dinner on Thanksgiving for families who have members with developmental disabilities in a judgement-free environment.
For three days this holiday season, various shopping malls nationwide will offer “Santa Cares” prior to opening to the general public. In this specialized meet with Santa Claus, lights are dimmer and music is softer than usual. Families schedule their visit in advance to avoid long lines, and Jolly Old St. Nicholas is specially trained to interact with all the children based on their individual needs.
There are a number of other ways to make the stresses of the season easier. Prior planning can help alleviate sensory overload for those with such challenges, while loosely wrapping and pre-assembling gifts can make things easier for kids with fine motor deficits.
Other ways you can help someone with a disability prepare for a celebration can include creating a photo album to help them mentally prepare for the event, along with a schedule of events. You should also give them something to do to help, such as greeting other guests, serving drinks, or taking pictures. A quiet room to recharge in if overwhelmed and an advance explanation to other family members about how best to interact with the individual also go a long way.
Ideally, plans should be as accessible and inclusive as possible with prior consultation from the family member with a disability. Offering appropriate help and conversation for family members with disabilities can mean a lot to them as well. Even then, there will be times when they will run late or have to cancel.
Whatever holiday or holidays your family will celebrate this season, there are alternatives to the typical traditions that can be overwhelming for a family member with a disability. Even more conventional traditions can be less of a challenge with the right preparations.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.