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Anticipating the Family With a Child With Special Needs

Happy Thanksgiving
Merry Christmas
Happy New Year’s

All of these sayings bring about different emotions in each of us. For me, I get really excited. I love the hustle and bustle of the holiday season we’re about to enter. For others, those three wishes are a reminder of what lies ahead . . . six weeks of changing schedules, pop-in visits, different foods, social gatherings, and anticipated surprises around every corner.

Parents with students with special needs don’t always enjoy the holiday season as much as the rest of us because of the challenges it brings. It’s not that they’re not thankful for all their blessings or that they don’t love Jesus and want to celebrate His miraculous birth. It’s just with all the celebration comes small hurdles they must overcome on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.

As a church, how can we lean into the lives of our families with students with special needs and become a source of comfort and joy rather than the cause of more confusion and stress during the holidays?

Don’t require too much but don’t leave them out either.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are often the busiest weeks you’ll find on any family’s schedule. You don’t want to add to the chaos but throwing in a number of different holiday activities (cookie exchange, mother’s Christmas tea, ballet events, shopping days, etc.). These are all great things but they can overwhelm anyone’s calendar if we try to put too much into a small window of time. While everyone knows they are able to opt out, it’s hard to not want to be a part of the festivities. On the same hand, you’ll want to consider that the rest of the community is probably celebrating with Office Christmas Parties, Small Group Christmas Parties, and other Community Celebrations that families with students with special needs might not be able to attend. At our church we take this as an opportunity to throw a huge Christmas Celebration for our families and our volunteers and their families. This celebration meets the need of the Christmas Party but provides a safe environment that is welcoming to those with special needs. We take care of every detail and simply ask the families to come and fellowship. Some families will dress up and use this as their one “fancy Christmas outing,” others will come in comfortable clothes and just enjoy the fellowship. The point is, no one is having to fit into a certain mold of “Christmas appropriateness.” We’re just coming together to celebrate the birth of Christ with our extended family.

Prepare families for changes.

Things are going to be different in the ministry during the holidays. This is a given, especially since Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on Sundays this year. Now is the time to start talking to the families with students with special needs about the changes in schedules, volunteers, and activities that are going to occur in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The more you can prepare parents for the change, the better equipped they will be to prepare their students. It is often helpful to write up a “Guide to the Holidays” with information specific to your church to give your families before Thanksgiving. In this Guide to the Holidays, you can list any special celebrations, special guests, service time changes, or even any special snacks that might result in the ministry veering off the typical routine. Parents can then use this “Guide to the Holidays” as a tool to develop a new social story to help prepare their student for the changes.

Be sensitive to an increase of anxiety.

Educate your volunteers on how the hustle and bustle of the holidays could result in an increase in anxiety for the parents and students with special needs. Increased anxiety can result in an increase in negative behaviors for the students and even the parents. Think of the holidays like shaking a soda can. Each change in schedule, each new experience, each surprise is like shaking the soda can repeatedly. You might not be able to see all the tension inside but when you go to open the can, it will explode all over you. Opening the can didn’t cause the tension, opening the can simply gave the tension an outlet. Our role during the holidays might have us opening tension-filled soda cans but we are given the amazing opportunity to still show God’s grace and mercy even when we’re all covered in a sticky mess.

Approach this season with empathy. Remember families with students with special needs need connection. If you’re willing to step into their lives and simply let them know they’re not alone, you’re living the message sent through Christ when He came to the world as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothing and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

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