Recently, I was chatting with my friend and colleague, Bev Metzger, about challenges that families of kids with hidden disabilities face. Bev, an early childhood specialist, didn’t hesitate when naming the primary concern about holidays: “Extended family…grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles,” she said. “When a child has a developmental issue, many times these folks just don’t understand. Their desire to ‘fix it,’ coupled with frustration, leads to a lot of problems. Comments like, ‘that kid just needs a good spanking’ show that they really don’t understand the issues.”
Of course, many grandparents and extended family DO understand the complexities of hidden disabilities. Sometimes the difficulty stems from a lack of knowledge. Fortunately, with a bit of proactive preparation, we can enjoy more harmonious holiday gatherings…
Send a “cover letter”
If your family plans include gathering with unfamiliar relatives this year, consider sending a letter of introduction that helps the host understand your family’s unique needs. Here is an example:
Dear Aunt Sue,
Our family is really looking forward to spending time with you at Christmas! Thanks so much for inviting us.
As you may know, our daughter, Janie, has been diagnosed with some special learning and language issues. She is very excited about Christmas, and we are glad she will have a chance to get to know you! We’ve learned that a little extra preparation helps her to have a successful, comfortable day, so we thought it would be a good idea to include you in our planning!
Janie is very sensitive to touch, especially when she is nervous. High fives and fist bumps are great; big hugs are uncomfortable for her. Also, she has some special dietary needs. We’ll pack foods that she is allowed to eat, so you won’t need to prepare extra food! We can’t wait to sample your famous sweet potato casserole, and we hope you won’t be offended that Janie can’t enjoy it, too. Finally, Janie often gets overwhelmed when she is with a large group of people. She may sneak away to the stairs to read a book or listen to music so that she can collect herself. She’s excited to show you her collection of Beverly Clearly books; she heard that you used to read those to me!
See you soon!
Joan and Ted
When Aunt Sue receives this letter, will she think you are spoiling Janie? Will she assume you are tightly-wound, over-indulgent parents who lack follow-through and a strong hand?
And that hurts. But you’ll know the truth, and you’ll move forward. Hopefully, by the end of the visit, Aunt Sue (and others like her) will have a greater understanding of your child, thanks to your good planning.
Schedule some “face time” Children (and adults!) fare better when they know what to expect. When preparing to spend time with unfamiliar relatives, you can help your child by familiarizing them with names and faces. One year, we created a “concentration” picture game for our nephew; each aunt or uncle’s face was on two cards. As he turned over the cards to find a match, we would name each person. By the time Christmas came, he knew everyone’s name! You can also have a stack of photos at your dinner table. During the meal, you can show the pictures to your children, and in addition to identifying the names, you can help your child to know each person:
“Uncle John used to rescue all the stray animals and bring them home as pets. Once he brought home a robin with a broken wing.”
“Aunt Alice loved to play with paper dolls, and she taught me how to make them, too!”
These kinds of activities reduce anxiety by building familiarity. In addition, if children know a few facts about their extended family, they will be better able to start conversations or ask questions.
Get the home-field advantage Sometimes, it is just easier to host family instead of trying to accommodate children’s needs in unfamiliar territory. Mike Woods, a behavior analyst and moderator of Making Room is the father of three boys with special needs. Over the years, he and his wife have determined that this strategy allows them to visit with friends and relatives while accommodating their boys’ needs. Mike writes, “Invites for us decreased as the years went by. Initially, we put forth some effort into going, but to be honest, it was more stressful and I had no time to interact because I was always keeping an eye on the boys! It’s just easier to do things in our home (which is an autism-friendly environment! For my boys the stressful part of (holidays) will be having a household full of people and more noise. Our basement will be totally off limits to guests and soley reserved for the boys so that they have a quiet, calm space that they can hang out in.”
The first Christmas took place in an unfamiliar location, and the Family was surrounded by strangers. Still, they were connected by their relationship to one tiny Baby. As you prepare for Christmas gatherings, your Key Ministry family will be praying that your relationships with be strengthened by Him, too, and that He will fortify you with courage, grace and joy.
Coming up: Preparing for the Pageant