Surviving the Season: When your Child has Special Needs

I can’t remember how old I was. I was too old to believe in Santa but for some reason I was very excited that Christmas eve. We were spending the holidays at the family farm with one of my dad’s brothers and his family. I was spending the night in the old farm house with my cousins when my parents were with my grandmother at her house. I didn’t sleep much at all that night. In fact, I think I was up every hour. My aunt was not too happy with me, especially considering that her kids had had a good night. The excitement of the holidays had gotten to me.

The holidays are meant for kids. No one else brings such unbridled enthusiasm or joy to the season. Add some sugar, late nights and a break in schedule and you have the recipe for some crazy days. Life can be even more challenging if you have a special needs child. It doesn’t matter if he or she has ADHD, Autism, a physical disability or mental health issues, anything can set that child off.

When Josiah was little he had a really hard time with any break in routine. It would usually start on the last day or two before the school holidays would even start. The actual holiday was irrelevant. Christmas. March break. Easter. I would get the inevitable call from the school asking me to come and pick him up. He knew that something was coming and he was too stressed to stay at school.

Josiah is a schedule guy. He always has been. I expect that he might be for his whole life. These days he is up with his alarm and is in the shower first thing. He is never late for the bus. He has his lunch made. He knows what to expect so his weekdays are good. His weekends don’t go quite as smoothly. He needs a lot more structure than I can usually give him. Add 2 more weeks to that for the holidays and you are spelling disaster. The summer is especially difficult.

When Josiah was little he was on a couple of medications that interfered with his ability to concentrate. In fact, it was so bad that he used to spend a lot of time watching television. A LOT. We threw a family party for Pete’s mom’s birthday a number of years ago. Our house was small so we had to set a table in our living room in addition to being in the dining room. Josiah was so stressed by all the activity and extra people in our house that he ended up sitting under the table and watching the TV with the sound off. It was his way of coping.

One of the hardest things to deal with when you have a special needs child is other people’s reactions to him or her. Josiah’s disorder is largely invisible so no one expects him to act differently. Then they are surprised when he does. I was once in a department store with Josiah and Eden. He was around 4 years old and it was right after Christmas. The store had had these little pots of evergreen trees that were for sale. The season was over so the remaining specimens were looking a little sad and shedding profusely. If I had noticed sooner I probably would have steered the kids clear of this disaster in the making but I missed it. Before I knew what was happening Josiah was in a full blown meltdown because of the mess of needles on the floor. I quickly abandoned my mission in the store and tried to leave but not before receiving a number of derogatory comments from a few other customers. I was in tears by the time I got the kids back into the van and left. There was an older woman in the parking lot who took the time to try to encourage me but the damage had already been done.

Family can be particularly hard on both the child and his or her parents. I was once criticized by a family member for my poor parenting skills because of Josiah’s behaviour. It was all my fault. Often family has no idea what is happening at home. They had no idea how many temper tantrums or sleepless nights we had had to endure. They had no idea how we struggled to balance the attention our son needed to the attention our other children deserved. They just didn’t get it. Holidays may also be one of the rare times that families will purposely congregate and this makes a child’s behaviour even more appalling. He is surrounded by a number of unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar place and disaster ensues. Family is not seeing this child in his own environment on his own terms. They are subjected to a highly stressed child that is having trouble functioning. No one wins.

It would be easy to write a long list of suggestions of things to do that helps Josiah and I cope during the holidays. I actually had. They sounded trite. Superficial. If you have a child with special needs you don’t need any more advice of what works. I have had the input of social workers, therapists, doctors and other experts for years. Some of it might help but lots of it won’t. What I need is to know that I am not the only one who is in this situation. And that is what I want you to know.

Quoting that overused saying that “God doesn’t give us anymore than we can handle” doesn’t help either. And it isn’t true. God was intentional when He made Josiah and placed him in my arms but He also knew that I would need Him. He knew about all the tears of frustration and grief that I would shed over my son. He knew how much I would love Josiah and how he might not be able to articulate his own feelings. He knew how having a son like Josiah would stretch me. How being his mom would force me out of my preconceived ideas and my own self-righteousness and force me to become a more compassionate person. A person more like His Son. A woman who reflects Him more clearly. My Father God knew that I would need Him to help me. And I do. I am too weak to do it on my own. But I don’t have to.

When the stress of the holidays hits and Josiah and I are knocked flat, all I have to do is trust my son to my Father God’s care and ask Him to help me. To sustain me. To do what only He can do. Then I can cope. Then I can forgive myself when life isn’t picture-perfect.

Josiah and I are both a work in progress. But we are in the safest place we can be–in our Heavenly Father’s hands. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.