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Is a stress free holiday on your wish list this year?

Keep the season cheerful, advice from a mom with a son on the spectrum

Every year, families welcome the holidays with the aroma of fresh baked cookies, twinkling lights, soft music, laughter and gifts.

Not in my house.

I'm usually super stressed, running around finishing my list at the last second and baking (and burning) cookies. The most important and demanding responsibility, however, is planning for my son who has special needs.

When things get totally hectic, advice from parents who've been there can really help put life into perspective.

Over the river and through the woods
Having a child on the spectrum usually means routines are key to keeping everyone calm and safe. The holidays can disrupt schedules and cause disorder and panic.

Jessica White, a mom from Beacon, anticipates her child's sensory needs prior to holiday gatherings and traveling. She says, "Noise-cancelling or reducing headphones are really important for travel. They help keep any unexpected or repetitive and loud noises from overwhelming my son." She also suggests bringing comfort objects from home such as a favorite stuffed animal, an iPad and a preferred snack and drink.

Sharing photos and stories can also prepare a child for upcoming events. Last year we talked about the holiday, identified symbols and watched videos so that outings during the season would seem more familiar. My son accepted just about everything besides the jolly man in the big red suit. All that meant for me is one less line we had to stand in.  

For children who are in the midst of potty training, White also notes that a potty seat adapter is essential. She explains, "Our son dislikes going to the bathroom in public restrooms. The potty seat allows him to sit
comfortably and relax so he can go."

READ MORE: Holiday tips for a happy morning

All can stay merry and bright
Staying calm has a direct effect on my son's mood. During meltdowns, I practice soft words and deep, calming breaths for my son to model while he regroups. I somehow always forget to use these methods when I'm feeling completely overwhelmed.

"Remember it's okay if you need to take a break, or possibly hide in the bathroom for a few minutes," explains Lisa DeFrancisco, a mom from Warwick.

Dear Santa…
My son only plays with toys he's seen on YouTube (it's like Saturday morning commercials for his generation). We still have to be mindful of the toys that could cause repetitive play, such as the electronic toys with millions of buttons and sound effects.

There's  quite a few brands that offer products for a variety of ages and skill levels without any of the flashing lights and nonsense. Companies like Melissa & Doug, for example, seem to really understand child development.

I typically share our favorite brands with relatives to ensure my son will receive something he'll enjoy. Opening gifts can over-stimulate him, especially after a hectic day. We usually let him open a few gifts and then take the rest home to open throughout the week. I don't want anyone to miss out, so I always take video and send it to the gift giver to share the joyful moment.

READ MORE: Give back during the holidays

A special togetherness

The hustle and bustle sometimes makes the entire season disappear in the blink of an eye.

Last year we split our family visits over two weekends. Although we missed some family and friends, for those we did get to see, my son was comfortable and engaged. Celebrating with a few smaller moments have created some of our most cherished memories.

Reevaluate what's most important during the holidays. Instead of trying to conform into the traditions we grew up with, we've created new ones that best work for our family.

Christmas morning at my house is celebrated the day before. We have a whole day to ourselves without any traveling or expectations. My son can take his time opening presents and playing with each one without any rush.

Pass the stuffing

Celebrations often include family gatherings around the dinner table. But for many, this can cause a lot of anxiety. Children with special needs may have food allergies, special nutritional requirements, oral-motor disorders or sensory processing disorders which require extra planning and accommodations.

It's a good idea to explain your child's needs to the family chef ahead of time. My mom loves to cook, and she's happy to prepare a plate of chicken nuggets as part of the holiday feast so that everyone can sit together.

Plates of food being passed around, loud conversations, new and different smells and silverware clanging on dishes can create an upsetting environment. We allow our son to eat where he feels comfortable, when he feels comfortable.

Look on the brightside
Whatever your stresses are during the holidays, however hectic and overwhelming, Jill O'Connell from Monroe offers the best advice in
keeping life in perspective:

"Last year I was thrilled no one threw up, until the car ride home, but still! Not ON Christmas Day!"

Rielly is a part-time writer and full-time mama. Her favorite hobbies include naptime, drinking coffee, and trips to Target.