Holiday crowds, noise, and chaos can be challenging for children with autism, ADHD, and other special needs—here's how to plan the happiest of holidays with your entire family.

Deaf child with Santa
Credit: Craig F. Walker/Getty Images

While most children find the winter holiday season to be exciting and joyful, many special needs kids struggle this time of year. The lights, the sounds, and the crowds can be overwhelming for kids with issues such as autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and developmental delays. But resourceful special-needs parents have found many ways to control the chaos so they can include their child in family-favorite holiday traditions.

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Deaf child with Santa
Credit: Craig F. Walker/Getty Images

1 Find a sensory-friendly Santa.

Waiting on a long line with screaming children to sit on Santa’s lap is a challenge for anyone, it is definitely a no-go for kids with sensory needs; luckily, many parks and malls now have sensory-friendly Santa experiences. This year, Autism Speaks has teamed up with Cherry Hill Programs to present sensory-friendly Santa experiences at malls all across the country: Parents can reserve a time to meet Santa during a calmer, more subdued hour—often before the stores open. This allows the child to have a special moment with Santa without feeling overwhelmed. And if your child can’t get to Santa, see if there’s a way Santa will come to your child. Amy Schwinder, a speech-language pathologist at the Roosevelt Children’s Center in Manhattan, reports that many of her students can’t visit Santa due to mobility issues; instead, Macy’s arranged to bring Santa and Mrs. Claus to the school to allow children to enjoy a visit without the hassle. It’s become a yearly tradition that is appreciated by everyone.

2 Always sit near the exit.

Whether you’re attending a religious service or watching the Rockettes, plan in advance to find seats on the aisle, near the exit, says Lori Podvesker from INCLUDEnyc, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides resources to families with disabilities. This way, if your child needs to take a break and go outside—or if perhaps the whole family needs to leave—you can do it quickly, without disturbing anyone.

3 Create special wrapping paper.

For kids who enjoy sensory play, pull out a big roll of paper and some washable paints and let your child finger-paint to his heart’s content! After the artwork dries, use it to wrap presents for teachers, friends, and grandparents—not only it is fun for the child to create, but it adds a real personalized touch. Get inspired by how Check kids in wheelchairs can create their own specially painted paper art.

4 Wrap gifts so they're easy to open.

Many kids with disabilities have poor motor skills, so a gift with too much tape or extra ribbons can be extremely frustrating. Make it easier by loosely wrapping with just a few pieces of tape, or better yet, put everything in fun gift bags. (If relatives send intricately wrapped presents for under the tree, you can secretly rewrap in a less complicated way before Christmas morning.)

5 Give your child his own tree, menorah, or kinara.

Theresa Sweeney Witham, a mom of a son with autism and ADHD in Baltimore, noticed some real control issues with her son and their Christmas tree. “One year, he wanted to group ornaments by type—animals here, snowmen there. I go with the flow and let him realize his vision!” But if your child’s control issues get in the way of siblings being able to share in the fun, let him have his own mini-tree in his room, to decorate however he wishes. In my home, my son always liked to blow out the menorah candles, which are meant to stay lit until they burn out. In order to celebrate the candle lighting without holding him back from blowing or scolding, we switched to an electric menorah.

6 For special events and dinners, have a plan and a timeframe.

My autistic son functions best at family dinners and parties if we lay out “the plan” before we leave. We write down exactly who will be there and a loose timeline of events. A friend recently told to me that she does something similar with her special needs son, except they also have a contract, which includes setting a secret timer on her phone so her son knows exactly when they’ll be leaving.

7 Discuss expectations with family before a gathering.

“People may expect your child to sit, open presents, and thank people. Yet a child with special needs may be unable to sit that long, or they might focus on one particular toy or a sensory distraction like Christmas lights, and they might not have the verbal skills to properly thank someone,” says Erica Keston, a mom of twins from White Plains, NY. If there will be any family members or friends at the gathering who are not familiar with your child’s abilities and needs, give them a head’s up beforehand so they will know what to expect.

8 Bring your child’s favorite foods and comfort items.

Many kids with special needs are picky eaters, so sitting down for a traditional holiday meal—with unfamiliar foods such as roasted goose, ham, or brisket—can be a challenge. Pack a lunchbox with a few foods you know your child will enjoy, so hunger doesn’t add to the stress. And of course, don’t leave your home without a favorite toy, book, or tablet. After all, inclusion is at its best when you are making your special needs child as comfortable as he or she can be.