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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.

Make Easter Happy and Healthy for Special Needs Kids

Easter is almost here, and like Halloween and Valentine’s Day the holiday celebrations Easter egg sachetinvolve lots and lots of candy. Many special needs children, along with many typical children, are severely affected by the synthetic dyes, preservatives, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients in treats. Simply reading labels and choosing all-natural products before filling eggs and baskets may just let your family have a more enjoyable holiday, and the habit of reading labels can improve the quality of life for you and your special needs child.

The non-profit Feingold Association has tons of information on medical studies that prove the link between these additives and increased hyperactivity, inability to focus and other symptoms. The site also offers a program and diet to eliminate these ingredients. Conditions that have improved on the Feingold diet include ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, MBD, TS and many more. Adopting the Faingold diet, or your own modified version of avoiding these ingredients, may not even mean a major overhaul of your family’s eating. According to the Feingold Association website, “Cheetos Natural White Cheddar Flavored Puffs are acceptable, but the orange colored Cheetos (with artificial coloring) are not. Duncan Hines makes a chocolate cake mix with artificial flavor – and another version without.”

So many caregivers of special needs children are searching for that magic pill, which may just be in the form of a shopping cart.

There are many stores that offer a wide selection of all-natural candy and treats, as well as items that are gluten-free, sugar-free and organic:

  • Whole Foods – Find your local Whole Foods here. (Whole Foods has partnered with Streit’s to offer all-natural Hannukah foods, fyi)
  • Trader Joe’s – Find your local location of Trader Joe’s here.
  • Many all-natural items are also available online, such as these All-Natural Jelly Belly jelly beans, which are also gluten-free, dairy free and kosher.

Know of a great store or product? Email me or share it with us all as a comment!

No Forced Kisses for Your Kids: A Holiday Safety Tip for Families

As parents well know, the holiday season is both incredibly exciting and potentially overwhelming for kids, sometimes all rolled together into one. At gatherings with families and friends, expectations about affection, attention, and teasing can create unnecessary stress and discomfort. By accepting our children’s different personalities and thinking through our boundaries ahead of time, we can teach our kids important life skills and make holiday parties and reunions more fun.

Most of us can remember being pressured to just “suffer through it” from our own childhoods. Who doesn’t recall being forced to kiss “Great Aunt Edna” as a kid, or getting scratched by Uncle Bob’s beard as he leaned in for a squeeze? Or, being told to just ignore the teasing and roughhousing of our cousins?

As a mother, I can relate to the embarrassment that a parent might feel when a child doesn’t want to give a big hug to Grandma when she walks in the door—especially if Grandma has been eagerly anticipating the visit for weeks and months. But through my work teaching personal safety as a Kidpower instructor, I have learned that supporting our children when they set boundaries is a very important practice.

Backing up a child who doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged does not mean that Grandma, or Great Aunt Edna, or Uncle Bob or Cousin Sara are doing anything wrong, but it does demonstrate that touch and play for affection or fun is your child’s choice in all situations. The holidays are a perfect time to work on “boundary setting” with our kids, so they feel confident and empowered as they move through different ages and stages of life.

When possible, try to bring relatives into this conversation ahead of time, letting them know that you are practicing with the kids to help them learn to set boundaries—and who better to practice with than people who know and care about the kids. That way, when a child sets a boundary with Grandma, she can feel that she’s part of a positive practice rather than left out. Some parents report that this is a difficult conversation to have, but I maintain that is an important one, and an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and exploration. Many parents feel that their culture has expectations the children show adults respect through affection.

At Kidpower, we have found that this is truly a cross-cultural phenomena across a wide variety of backgrounds, and an issue that is worth addressing: how can we come up with ways for children to show respect to their elders in ways that feel nurturing and respectful to the child as well? One point I like to emphasize about child safety is to ask “How can we expect our children to set clear boundaries about touch when they are on their own, if we do not support them in doing so when we are together with our families, standing right there in a position to advocate for our kids and back them up?” In practice, this may be as simple (yet powerful) as saying, “Do you want to give Grandma a hug, a high-five, a kiss, or a wave? ….Not right now? Okay… Maybe you’ll want to blow a kiss or do a high-five later.”

Some kids are social butterflies and will thrive on the opportunities to be the center of attention. Be prepared to help them to notice the boundaries of others and to remember to follow your safety rules about Checking First before changing the plan, even in a family gathering. Other children are more reserved and are best off being allowed to warm up at their own pace. They might need your involved advocacy to redirect unwanted attention away from them and your help in setting boundaries when well-meaning adults try to pressure them.

Even if a relative is offended when a child does not want to kiss or hug them, this is an important time to keep in mind the bottom line—kids need to learn from an early age that touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret. This core safety rule should be respected in all situations. (Editor’s Note: remember…this is not just a “keep my child safe “during COVID” rule – this is a teach my child a skill that will keep them safe “for LIFE” rule).

Touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret.

It’s confusing for kids to try to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners, since it gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries. Keep in mind Kidpower’s founding principle: A child’s safety and healthy self-esteem are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. Or, more simply stated: Put Safety First.

Here are additional Kidpower resources about how to use boundaries to make our holiday gatherings truly joyful:

Kids, Pets & Your Holiday Party: Read this List (check it twice!)

kids-will-at-some-point-decorate-the-dogThe Holidays – 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 your holiday gathering, 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 person, adult and child (this one is a vegetarian, that one is allergic to nuts, this 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.

I am going to start 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, their dangers, and even some pictures 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 smells can be overwhelming to them, and they 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 not all dogs ‘love’ to be grabbed, picked up, passed around, and held in place by a kid they do not know that well. A sweet child innocently reaching over to pet the dog while he is overwhelmed can lead to a bite. Just because you enjoy the hustle and bustle, don’t assume your pet will too. 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.

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 danger. Kids nowadays are taking everyday cough syrups or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed). Has anyone in the family had surgery or dental work recently that required pain medicine? If you are not addicted to pain pills, then you 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’. Go through your medicine cabinets and either get rid of them or lock them up.

Outdoor Safety

Even though it is wintertime, drowning accidents are not exclusive to summer only. Make sure the pool out back is securely locked or gated. An in ground pool with a cover on it may have a nice layer of snow over it that a guest’s child does not know is there. And you’d be amazed at the hare-brained schemes of teenagers…. It is not unheard of for one to convince another that the pool is frozen over, and you can walk out on the ice….. only to find the pool is not frozen solid.

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…. Let the 15-17 year olds look after the 2-4 year olds, and the 12-14 year olds look after the 5, 6 and 7 year olds. 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.

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!!

Holiday Foods That Can Make You and Your Family Sick

thanksgiving_dinnerEvery host wants guests to leave the table with a full stomach, not a stomach bug. Unfortunately, 76 million cases of food-borne diseases occur in the United States each year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 325,000 of those cases result in a trip to the emergency room. This time of year, with heaps of food and extra guests, it’s all too easy to contaminate meals with food-borne bugs or a nasty flu virus.

Luckily, there are a few simple safe-cooking precautions that will keep your friends and family safe and healthy this holiday season. Barbara Kowalcyk, Assistant Professor at OSU’s Department of Food Science and Technology and recognized expert in food-borne illness, shares her tips to help prevent both food poisoning and germ-sharing.

At the Store

Keep raw meats and poultry separate from packaged foods in your cart. The outside of meat packages can be contaminated with bacteria, and touching them means you can easily spread germs and bacteria to other products. “Don’t be afraid to use a plastic bag from the produce department as a glove when handling meats,” says Kowalcyk. “A little precaution now can save you from a big mess later.”

At Home

Proper preparation is the key to safe cooking. Before cooking any meals, clean your hands and all work surfaces. Designate different cutting boards for different types of foods to help prevent cross-contamination. It’s also important to pay attention to what you’re doing. “Don’t go from cutting a chicken to making a salad. Wash your hands,” says Kowalcyk.

Knowing which foods to wash also prevents illness. Always wash the tops of cans and all fruits and vegetables. “People are often surprised to learn that something like a salad can make them sick,” says Kowalcyk. She recommends skipping prepackaged bagged leaves and buying the whole head instead. Remove the outside leaves as well as any with tears, which are the most likely to be contaminated.

Don’t put meat and poultry in the sink. “It doesn’t need to be washed,” says Kowalcyk. Washing raises the risk of contaminating other surfaces in your kitchen. It only takes between three and 10 microbes to start an infection (more than a million can fit on the head of a pin). Just a few drops of dirty water can really wreck havoc on your kitchen. Washing the food won’t kill bacteria, but cooking your food to the proper temperature will.

If You’re Sick

If you’re fighting the flu or a cold, you should stay out of the kitchen altogether. Give instructions to another family member or consider wearing a mask as you prepare the food. If nothing else, wash your hands more often — especially after you cough or sneeze.

In the Oven

Testing meat for color, touch or until juices run clear is not a good way to tell if food is done. “Testing the internal temperature is the only way to know if it’s cooked to a safe temperature,” says Kowalcyk. She recommends you ditch the dial thermometers and pop-up buttons included with some prepackaged turkeys since both may not be calibrated properly. Instead, use a digital thermometer to test meat at its thickest point and poultry at the joint between the thigh and leg.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends cooking foods to the following minimum temperatures to ensure safe consumption:

At the Table

Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours. This includes the time it may be on the counter or table before you serve it. Keep hot foods hot in the oven and cold foods cold in the refrigerator. “Don’t let your foods get to room temperature,” says Kowalcyk. “That’s where bacteria likes to grow. And the longer it sits out, the more you increase your risk of getting sick.”

After the Meal

Transfer warm leftovers to shallow dishes so they’ll cool down evenly and quickly in the fridge. Also keep in mind that the temperature increases in an overstuffed fridge, so you may need to adjust yours for a few days after a big meal to make sure it stays at a safe 40 F.

The Next Day

Everyone loves leftovers, but not everyone should reach for the cold turkey. Those vulnerable to illness — young children, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions — should reheat leftovers to 165 F before eating them. “Most people will be OK, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry,” says Kowalcyk.

Dear Santa…Please Keep My Family Safe

Every year children all across the country and the world make lists to Santa. Wishes for new bikes and dolls and don’t forget the very latest toy. Childhood wishes and childhood dreams. Every year though children are poisoned by holiday plants; are electrocuted by holiday decorations. Parents die in drunk-driving collisions.

Dear Santa letter2As a paramedic my partner and I responded one Christmas morning to an unknown medical. When we arrived we walked past a Christmas tree completely surrounded by presents as well as two young children eagerly awaiting both parents arrival so the day’s festivities could begin. The husband met us and led us to the master bedroom. Mom was dead- had died several hours earlier. The holidays are hard times for many people even people with love, and family and friends. Some people make choices during the holiday they might not make during other times of the year. There was nothing we could do and not a more helpless feeling we could feel.

What’s amazing to me is that this call was over 20 years ago. I had no other involvement that what I stated yet I still remember it- every Christmas season. The children would be grown by now. I bet that they too still remember. I bet they still feel different about Christmas than do many of their friends.

I bet if those kids could go back in time their wishes would simply be to have Mom with them for many more years to come. So please place safety at the very top of your Santa list. As adults we need to assure the health and safety of our kids and we can’t afford a break over the holiday season.

The lyrics of one of my favorite holiday songs perhaps say it best.

My Grown Up Christmas List

….”As children we believed
The grandest sight to see
Was something shiny
Wrapped beneath the tree

But heaven only knows
That packages and bows
Can never heal
A hurting human soul

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end

Oh, This is my grown up Christmas list”

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