How to avoid a frosty meltdown

Published 12:04 pm Friday, December 8, 2017

The goal of parents with special needs kids is to control as much of the environment as possible to reduce meltdowns. The holidays, filled with surprises and off-schedule events can be a nightmare.

Here are some tips to help you cope and maintain some Christmas spirit.

Most meltdowns involve the element of surprise. You can avoid that land-mine by using a visual calendar.

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Print a blank calendar from the Internet and fill in the dates of December through New Year’s. Depending on your child’s ability, use words or pictures to highlight any days of activities you have planned. Include things like decorating the house, attending school events, going shopping, wrapping gifts, visiting family, Christmas eve/day and so forth.

Put the calendar in a visible place such as on the refrigerator. Introduce the calendar to him and explain all the events. Every night, let your child mark the day off on the calendar and countdown the days until the next event.

Showing him the calendar provides the information visually. Talking about it each day gives the information through hearing. Physically marking off the days stimulates the sense of touch.

Using multiple sensory paths to impart information increases the child’s ability to receive, understand and respond appropriately.

Surprise, confusion and an inability to process unfolding events are triggers for meltdowns. Multi-sensory input reduces those risks.

Family and friends often struggle with what to buy for a special needs child. Provide  them a list of suggested toys or a skill or sense to target.

A Google search will turn up a large selection of websites offering toys for special needs. Some are very expensive as they are therapy companies using unique toys as therapeutic tools. Both Toys R Us and Amazon offer lists of economic toys for special needs kids. Toys R Us has gone to significant lengths to make shopping for special needs kids easier.       

Be aware of pets in any home you visit. Pets tend to either calm a child or incite a meltdown. If you don’t know how your child will respond, I suggest you do a test run before the big day or avoid the pet. A child knocked down by an excited pooch or smacked by a playful cat may not be able to return to his calming axis.

You know your child. You know his limit. Make sure hosts of any homes you visit do too.

If you have more than one child, consider organized gift unwrapping. Excited sounds, fast movements and Christmas paper flying in all directions can be too much for sensory kids.

Allow kid one at a time to open gifts or allow the special needs child to open all of his first. Once his are open, you can remove him from the overload zone to a calming place with his new toys. Then your typical child can express their joy of Christmas morn upsetting no one.

Decide as a family before the big day so everyone knows what to expect.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, the meltdown occurs. In those moments, refuse to give into the despair that grips your heart. Remind yourself it’s just a day. Refuse to believe the turmoil of a single day is a life sentence for your family.

Life changes. What remains the same is the fact that you will always be the greatest gift your child ever receives.

Joan Graves is a mother to five boys and an advocate and activist for children with special needs and their families. For more, go to