Tips for Hosting a Special Needs-Friendly Holiday

Every parent knows that the holidays are a mixed bag of delight and exhaustion.  Road trips and family and gifts and friends, the end of the year is full to the brim, and at times a bit overwhelming. The intensity of the season is often magnified for families with children with special needs. While certainly still enjoyable, the stress of changing routines, packing for travel and meeting the expectations of the jolliest weeks of the year can be downright daunting… As a mama of a child with autism, we’ve learned a few things over the years about how to make the very best of the season, and create a joyful space for everyone. Here are a few tips for hosting a special-needs friendly holiday!

Special needs-friendly Family christmas

Tips for Hosting a Special Needs-Friendly Holiday

Please note: It is vitally important to remember that each person with special needs is a completely unique individual. What works for one family may not work at all for another. (When in doubt – ask!) But, with several years of practice and interaction with the special needs community, here are some general ideas that may be helpful as you plan your festivities.

1. Above all, be flexible – 

Going with the flow is the name of the game! Arriving late to events or sneaking out early; bringing alternative food, and selectively participating in activities are all part of making this busy season work for a child with special needs. The goal is to participate and enjoy as much as possible. But sometimes, that means changing things up a bit or even saying “no” to something fun. Remember that this is not a reflection of how much you are loved as a friend or family member, it’s just a part of creating a holiday that works for everyone!

special-needs friendly tree with mom

2. Provide a quiet, private space –

A moment of calm can do wonders for both the parents and child. It may be that they need a spot with fewer stimuli to successfully eat a meal, or a dimly lit room to communicate, relax and re-set with a soothing toy or routine. Or, And this may be particularly true if a child is older, keep in mind that a private place to change diapers or soiled clothing can be a huge relief.

3. When it comes to gifts, think outside the box

For example, our little one does not like to open presents. So, we leave his gifts unwrapped to help him enjoy the event. The type of gift may also need to be unconventional. Sensory toys or gifts to aid in therapies are often on our lists, and for some, avoiding things with loud noises or lights may be important. Or. A child might have unique special-interests. The key: Just ask, and be open, even if the request may seem a little odd, or not traditionally “fun”!

special-needs friendly tree with dad

4. Celebrate the great moments  –

An important lesson in our family has been to enjoy and embrace the joyful moments, even if they are mixed with some tough ones. It can be easy to focus on a meltdown, failed activity or other “disappointment”, but the reality is, every family has those experiences! Instead, delight in the moments of fun surrounded with family and friends, and let the rest go.

special-needs friendly holiday snuggles

We have been so blessed with understanding, loving and inclusive community, and are often impressed with the efforts that those around us make to help us feel comfortable and loved. Though our holidays and our day-to-day lives may look different than many, they are no less filled with joy. I hope you found these tips for hosting a special needs-friendly holiday helpful!

Are you a special needs family? What makes your holiday fun of thanks or merry + bright?



Rachael Rahrig
Rachael is an old soul with a passion for great stories, and the people that tell them. Mom to Titus, age 4, Rachael married her high school sweetheart, Andrew, nine years ago, and life has taken them on some wild, beautiful rides since. Originally from the Midwest, they have relocated to three different states in the last four years, living in South Tampa since the spring of 2017. A homeschool graduate, Rachael holds a bachelors degree in communications & political science and is a former PR pro. During downtime, she enjoys classic films and literature, history, great food, design, working with service organizations, and being active. You can follow Rachael’s personal blog at