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Top 5 Holiday Tips for Children with Special Needs

All kids can get overstimulated from time to time. The holidays, with its bright lights, loud sounds and crowds can be particularly tough on kids. Children with special needs may have even more difficulty during the celebratory season. Dawn Grosvenor, mom to a special needs teen and founder of Hopelights Media, has written a wonderful article to help families with special needs children manage the holidays with minimal upset and hopefully, maximum joy:

HOPELights™ Holiday Top Five Tips for Children With Special Needs

Studies show there are over 10 million families in the U.S. that have children with special needs who experience some form sensory processing dysfunction, making all children special this holiday season

Holidays are a busy time of year, full of activity from people to places that can easily over stimulate Holidays can be fun...not scarychildren, especially those with special needs. A 2022 report by the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found 14 million U.S. children in the have special healthcare needs, or nearly twenty percent of all U.S. children. More than one-fifth of U.S. households with children have at least one child with special needs. HOPELights holiday tips are designed to aid the families that love and support special needs children—having guidance on high-sensory events like the upcoming holidays are critical.

“This means millions of children in the United States have some sort of challenge with things like loud noises, environmental or event transitions, crowds, sensitivities to taste or touch just to name a few,” said Dawn Grosvenor, founder of HOPELight Media. “Which is why putting special emphasis on how to help children and their families through the holiday hustle and bustle is critical in ensuring they have a positive, healthy and loving interaction with friends and family. Holidays should be cherished and foster positive memories that last a lifetime. ”

HopeLights Holiday Top Five Tips for Children With Special Needs:

 

  1. Make a Visual Schedule – Many children are used to routine, structure and consistency, but much of this is lost during the holidays. If your child can see it coming for days, hours and minutes before it happens, transitions from place to place or even events in your own home will be more welcoming to your child.
  2. Identify “Anchor” or Transition Items – Most children have an attachment to a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, toy or other item. Make sure your child has his or her favorites nearby especially if you are traveling. Let them carry a special bag of their favorite goodies. It is a little piece of home and helps them feel grounded and secure.
  3. Establish Warm Up Times and Personal Space Parameters – Holidays bring in visitors or not-so-familiar faces that your child only sees once or twice a year. It is important these visitors give your child time to warm up and re-establish a connection. Great Aunt Betty may not be familiar right away, but she will be rewarded with a warm interaction 20 minutes or so into her visit if Aunt Betty and your child are prepared for the event.
  4. Create and Communicate Code Words – Special needs or not, every child hits a melting point. Too many people, too many presents, skipping or moving a nap time can lead to the uncomfortable fit. As a parent, we can sometimes see these coming or at the very least we can intervene at the beginning. Talk with your family members before everyone gets together and establish a “Code Word” and ask them to help when you say this word or phrase. It can be as simple as “Houston, we have a problem.” By establishing code words with friends and relatives, this lets them know when you and your child need a private moment. You will be amazed how well they understand and cooperate without hurt feelings and it takes the pressure off of you.
  5. Set Your Own Expectations in Advance – As parents we sometimes expect too much of ourselves, and put even more expectations on the “perfect” holiday. Remember you are only one person with only one goal, to love your children and ensure they are safe and happy this holiday season. Create your own To-Do lists and schedule plenty of time between events and preparation of visitors so you are not rushing through the holiday, but savoring each moment.

How to Celebrate Your Holidays with Kids and Pets

As I was contemplating what to write my post about this month, (yeah, I think everyone gets writers block once in a while) I suddenly realized how quickly the holidays have descended upon us again! And when I looked back over some of my old posts, I realized that not only has it been about three years since I have written about the holidays, but I have also never written one about Thanksgiving! I decided to update my holiday article from three years ago, not only to add some important updates and edits, but also to include Thanksgiving and the things that somehow always seem to happen at that time of year.

For many of us, the Holidays are such an exciting time: family and friends gathering around, sharing laughs, some songs, sharing old memories, and creating new ones. You spend weeks preparing for it, who to invite, how you are going to fit everyone around the tables, what you are going to serve….

You put so much time, energy and love into every aspect of this. You think of each adult and child (this one is vegetarian, that one may have a milk sensitivity) and you think you have covered it all. But have you?

Let’s face it, you can’t possibly plan for EVERY ‘surprise’, but you can take steps to keep any negative ones to a minimum when it comes to all the children that will be there and any pets as well.

Visiting Family: As far as Thanksgiving goes, we have all heard thousands of times that that is the most traveled day of the year. This holiday is very synonymous with ‘Family.’ For many of us, ‘family’ also includes the family dog! So if you want to bring Fido along with you, please read my post How To Travel Safely For The Holidays With Pets AND Kids This will give you quite a bit of information on everything from car and air travel to a helpful list of what to pack for your pup. And I will add one more tip that was not in that post… if you are planning to go away without Fido, make sure to book your reservations for him at your favorite boarding facility or dog watcher in advance. I do private in-home boarding in my house, and only take a limited amount of dogs…. and some of my regular clients booked me for the holidays as early as August!

So having covered the traveling with your kids and pets over the holidays, I have compiled a list …. starting with all the very pretty things that come hand in hand with the holidays, things that seem innocent enough, but can become a deadly hazard.

Ribbons and garland:

They seem pretty harmless, but a child watching us decorate may see us ‘drape’ a few strands of it around our necks for easy access to it while we put it up. While we see it as ‘convenient’; they may see it as a cool necklace or costume. A garland or ribbon wrapped around their necks may not be a great idea. For that matter, it might not be a great idea around yours either. I will add one more danger to it….. it is a sparkly hanging thing….. so how does the dog distinguish that from any one of their numerous pull toys? It is a recipe for potential disaster that is easily avoidable. Instead, grab a folding stack table and lay it across that for easy access.

One quick helpful hint…. while you decorate, put the animals in another room. Cats especially love ribbons, rubber bands, and anything else they can pounce on or play hockey with – at a minimum, you will save yourself the frustration of having to chase them around trying to reclaim your decorations, but you will also avoid the ‘worse case scenario’ of them swallowing them, which can get twisted up inside them, costing you thousands in vet bills or worse.

Candles and Scented Plug Ins

While candles do add to the ambiance, remember that small curious hands and tails wagging furiously in all the excitement tend to send any object on a coffee table into flight. Put those and any glass ornaments high up and out of reach. And those plug-in oils…. Make sure you unplug them before bed, and beware of when the oil runs dry because that is when they become a horrific fire hazard.

Poisonous Plants

Many people are aware that some Christmas plants may be poisonous…. But are you familiar with which ones are on the list? Although I knew some of them, after I started to do more research, I was surprised at how incorrect my own knowledge was! For example, I would have topped the list with the poinsettia…. After all, the name almost sounds like the word ‘poison’ . But at the top of the list was the seemingly ‘innocent’ plant of Holly! Which is deadly unlike the poinsettia which was listed as ‘not that bad’. So I will add a link here which provides some names and their dangers to help you recognize what may harm your little one or your pet.

Children’s Interactions with Pets

As a dog trainer, I often hear, “I don’t understand…. My dog has never bitten anyone before!” It is very important to keep in mind that this is not your dog’s normal setting. With their heightened senses, the constant noises and the mouth-watering aromas of all the fantastic food being prepared can be overwhelming to them – and lets not forget the Football game playing on the TV at peak volume! My family was never huge into sports, but I have been to some Thanksgiving dinners where ‘watching’ the game can get pretty loud and boisterous! With all of this going on, your dog may not react the way they typically do. Your pet may be a mild and quiet little thing, or generally pretty social and outgoing…. But just because you enjoy the hustle and bustle, don’t assume your pet will too. A sweet child innocently reaching over to pet the dog while he is overwhelmed can lead to a bite. They might be much happier having a quiet space away from it all. And if they tend to startle easily, or be a bit skittish, it is probably best to crate them, put them in another room, or possibly think of boarding them somewhere for the night.

The most important thing I need to stress here is that if you want to have your family dog with you, you must remember that he is ultimately your responsibility… so be aware of what his body language is saying at all times to ensure everyone involved is safe. If you are not sure what your dog’s body language means, please read my article Recognize a Dog’s Body Language Before Your Child Gets Bitten

There is one more important thing you will want to be aware of… if there are young children at your holiday gathering, keep an eye on them around the dog as well. One difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas is that Thanksgiving can tend to be a non-stop food-fest. The holiday is pretty much centered around families getting together and eating. Young children running around with food or snacks in their hands can be a potential recipe for danger on a few levels:

1. Danger to your Pet. Young children tend to drop things and keep going. There are certain foods that are not only potentially dangerous, but toxic to your pet. See Pet WebMD’s comprehensive list of holiday no-no’s for your pet.

2. Danger to your Child. Worse than a child accidentally dropping their food and continuing on, is the child that realizes they have dropped it and goes back for it, just to find out it is already in Fido’s mouth. A toddler trying to reclaim their food from a dog who just received some seriously ill-gotten-goods can become a very high risk for a bite.

One suggestion I would make is to bring an exercise pen with you. My favorite one is the one without the door made by MidWest. I like this one because it both opens and folds very easily, and comes in numerous heights depending on how large or small your dog is. You can fold into any shape you want, or open it up all the way to block a large entryway or doorway. It is a very versatile item.

Alcohol Consumption

More often than not, drinks tend to be all set out on one table. The bottles of wine and beer are right next to the bottles of soda. This is potentially a ‘free-for-all” for experimenting teens. I have been in recovery for a long time, and attend 12 step fellowships meeting regularly, and I wish I could say that I never see ‘members’ under the age of 21…. But I can’t. I am seeing more and more young people attending meetings. And when I listen to their stories, more often than not, they begin with drinking the ‘free-flowing’ alcohol served at their family’s parties. Make a separate table for the liquor, and designate one or two adults to serve.

And while I am on this subject, medicine cabinets are another very serious danger. We are in the middle of the worst opioid crisis the U.S has ever seen. Opiods are narcotic pain killers (Vicodin, Percocet OxyContin and Fentanyl) which suppress the central Nervous System. All of these medicines are highly addictive, and according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) ‘have led to more deaths in the past few years than car accidents, diseases and guns.’ In August 2017, the US declared this epidemic a ‘National Public Health Emergency’. Has anyone in your family had surgery or dental work recently that required pain medicine? If you are not addicted to pain pills, then you probably think nothing of leaving the left over pills in the medicine cabinet. Years ago, when I was using, we had a name for pills that had labels on the bottles identifying them as narcotic or ‘May Cause Drowsiness.” We called them ‘party invitations’. Please go through your medicine cabinets and either get rid of them or lock them up!

Outdoor Safety

Even though it is cold outside, drowning accidents are not exclusive to summer only. Make sure the pool out back is securely locked or gated.

One suggestion which may keep young kids, tweens, and teens all out of trouble and occupied, and allow parents to relax and have fun…. Set up a ‘babysitting’ scenario. Figure out how many of each group you are going to have, and ‘assign’ a child or two to each older child. You can even pay them a small fee for doing the service! Assign age appropriate younger kids to older ones. Give a kid no guidance and too much freedom, you are asking for a bored kid to look for trouble, but assign them a responsibility, and throw in the possibility of some monetary gain, and more often than not, they will step up to the plate.

Sorry Mom’s and Dad’s, the dog needs to stay with you! Children and animals should never be left alone together unsupervised. If you can’t watch the dog, I do not suggest just locking him in a room. He could get very stressed out, and if someone accidentally opens that door and he charges out in panic, someone could get hurt. The safest place for your dog if you can’t watch him is in a crate.

Follow some of these guidelines or ideas, and avoid any future regrets. I have learned throughout my life that I much prefer saying, “I am so glad I ___“ than saying, “If only I ____“.

I wish everyone a happy, safe and healthy holiday season!!

 

Post Halloween: Teaching Our Kids the “Why” Behind Moderation

Teach Post-Halloween Moderation2My son, Evan, was on quite a roll a recent morning! He started off by telling me his leg hurt. I asked him if he hit it on something and he said no. I then explained that when his body grows, it can cause his body to hurt sometimes. He said, “Oh, I know why! I think I ate too much candy for Halloween.” I stopped in my tracks and smiled. “Really? You think that’s why?” He said, “Yes. Mommy, will you give me something healthy to eat? I need to make my leg feel better.” I almost fell over. I explained to him that the foods he ate for breakfast were actually healthy (whole grain waffles, yogurt, orange juice) so that should make his leg feel better soon.

I think Evan remembered me telling him and his sister about how candy can make them feel “yucky” if they eat too much. I’ve explained that eating some candy is fine, but eating a lot can make them feel sick and can even take some of their “super powers” away. Even though I thought Evan wasn’t listening, I think that made an impression on him after all.

As parents, let’s remember to tell our children the “why’s” behind being healthy. Avoid making associations between food and weight or “to avoid getting granny’s sugar disease,” but instead mention things that matter to them right now.

Evan loves soccer, being strong, smart and running fast. I tell him that eating healthy foods help him with those things and he gets it. Get them invested in the healthy lifestyle for their own reasons; it will stick with them for the rest of their lives. [By the way, he recently started eating broccoli after over 3 years of rejecting it on his plate and now he says it’s his favorite food. Perserverance in healthy messaging and exposure pays off!]

Stick with those positive messages, Mom and Dad. They are listening even when you don’t think they are. I was reminded today that my son is listening to me!

Healthy Alternatives to Halloween Candy

Want some healthier alternatives to candy to pass out at Halloween?

Once you put your sugar-free but ghoulish thinking cap on, there are lots of healthy alternatives – edible and not – says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietitian and an American Dietetic Association spokesperson and director of wellness coaching at Cleveland Clinic. Look for small accessories such as light-up rings or individual packs of baked chips or pretzels at local discount stores, party supply shops and wholesale clubs. “Have a few choices to satisfy different age groups,” she suggests.

Here are a few more of Jamieson-Petonic’s favorite affordable and healthy alternatives to candy:

  • Packs of sugar-free gum
  • Sugar-free hot chocolate packets
  • Individual packs of roasted pumpkin seeds or trail mix
  • Stickers or temporary tattoos
  • Glo-sticks or slime
  • Small bouncy balls
  • Jump ropes
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Beanbags or hacky sacks

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Editor’s Note: We are all concerned about childhood nutrition these days, which makes Halloween a particularly “tricky” holiday. But there’s more than one way to skin a black cat!…as we see from two different perspectives on Halloween treats. Today’s post looks at candy alternatives, while another post by Mommy Dietitian talks about letting kids have their candy on Halloween (as long as moderation prevails after the holiday). We hope you found some useful ideas to safely satisfy your “ghouls”!

Top 5 Halloween Candy Alternatives: For ALL Kids’ Special Needs

Childhood obesity is now called an epidemic, and many special needs kids have very specific dietary needs so lots of parents and caregivers, not to mention dentists, cringe at the idea of a pillowcase filled with candy on Halloween. There are a growing number of children who have medical conditions, dietary restrictions and/or whose caregivers take a “radical” anti-sugar or organic approach to life, so non-candy offerings can really help these little ones (and not-so-little ones) enjoy the holiday, too. Many times I see the ghouls and goblins that darken my doorstep getting even more excited about the non-candy treats I pass out than if I were to give them yet another pumpkin-shaped confection or lollipop. I’m happy to say that more and more alternatives to candy are appearing in stores and in my kids’ Halloween haul. Here are some ideas for non-candy Halloween treats. Take a stroll down your local store aisles for even more possibilities.

Top 5 Halloween Candy Alternatives

1. Pencils – most school districts are struggling with budget cuts and lack of funding. Halloween or other themed pencils are inexpensive and can be used to add interest to long school days and even longer homework assignments. Look for pencils decorated with cartoon characters, sparkly glitter, space aliens, sports teams and much more. Again, pencils can be bought in packages meant for party favors or even in bulk from party stores and office supply shops. Small note pads, erasers, activity and coloring books and crayons are also great ideas.

2. Trading Cards – whether it’s good old-fashioned baseball cards or one of the current trendy card lines like Marvel Legends, a pack of trading cards has a lot of possibilities inside that small package. Some trading card battle games even help kids practice math, memory and classification skills, which is certainly sweet. Small decks of playing cards or card games are also available in packs of party favors and offer long-term play value instead of a quick sugar rush.

3. Glow sticks, bracelets and necklaces are great for safety on a dark and spooky night of trick-or-treating, and they also make kids feel like they are at a theme park or concert. But they have lots of fun uses inside, too – they light up blanket forts and look great inside carved jack-o-lanterns.

4. Bubbles – you might think bubbles only appeal to the younger set but I’ve seen plenty of teenagers have a blast blowing these around and at each other. It’s also a favorite pre-concert and nightclub activity, making tweens feel a bit like the big kids. Pets love to chase them, too!

5. Temporary tattoos – you can find these in Halloween designs, superheroes, princesses, glow-in-the-dark, encouraging sayings and much more. Glitter tattoos are a big fad right now, and nothing says fun like glitter!

Honorable mention: Stickers – kids love to cover themselves (and their clothes, books and backpacks) in these, which is why doctors, dentists and teachers always use them as rewards.

Frugal Tip: Throughout the year I save small goody bag items that my kids have received but don’t like and put them in a box. Sometimes those restaurant packs of crayons remain unopened, so they go in the box, too. By Halloween I have a nice stash to share with my costumed holiday visitors.

As you can see, you really do have many alternative choices instead of candy this treat-or-treat season – this list is only the beginning. Small craft kits, party packs of modeling clay, stamps, bookmarks, and key chains….the list just might be endless and is limited only by your imagination.

Happy Halloween!

4th of July Strategies for Special Needs Kids

July_4th_fireworks - fun from a distanceThe 4th of July is an exciting holiday, but for special needs kids it can all be a bit too much. Think about it: fireworks are basically EXPLOSIONS! Things blowing up can be challenging for someone who is sensitive to loud noises. Also, fireworks can’t happen until nightfall, which may mean staying up late. For typical kids that may be a treat, but some special needs kids find a disruption in daily routine very upsetting. Also, barbecues and parties may bring unfamiliar and even dangerous foods to children on a special diet. Plan ahead, be prepared, and you and your special needs kid can have a great time.

Planning ahead is essential. Pre-pack a bag of comfort items, medications if necessary, and any foods that fit your child’s dietary plan. Many special needs children find that earplugs or noise-reducing headphones help in loud situations.

If you are going to a live fireworks display, consider a vantage point that is a bit farther away. You will encounter smaller crowds and much less noise, while being able to enjoy all the colors and patterns. We found a spot across the freeway from a show and were able to see not only that one but also several other displays in our area, without battling for parking or having to cover anyone’s little ears. Some shows even simulcast a soundtrack on a radio station so check your local listings.

Speaking of local listings, another option is to watch fireworks on television or on Youtube. You might even want to do this in preparation for a live show as part of desensitization (or as theatre folk call it, rehearsal). Rehearsal is a great way to prepare for a big event, and it can be fun, too. Role play a visit to a dentist or hair salon several times with your child, and be sure to switch roles now and then!

The following social story comes from National Autism Resources where you can buy many great tools, toys and other items to help on your journey with your special needs child. You can personalize this story to fit any holiday or situation.

Fireworks Social Story

Every year we celebrate my country’s birthday on the 4th of July. We celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks. Fireworks are a fun way to celebrate.

  • Sometimes fireworks make loud noises and have bright lights. That is OK.
  • If the fireworks get too loud I can cover my ears with my hands or put on my ear muffs.
  • If I don’t want to look at the bright fireworks, I can close my eyes or look away.
  • I can watch the fireworks up in the sky or I can watch fireworks stay on the ground. If the fireworks are on the ground I will not touch them. I will let an adult light the fireworks so that I will be safe.
  • If I am scared, I will hug my mom or dad. Hugging my mom or dad might help me feel safer.
  • After the fireworks end, I will clap. I will be happy that I got to see the fireworks.

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