Top 10 Ways to Prepare for a Safe and Fun Winter for Kids with Special Needs

The cooler weather, shorter days and host of holidays that arrive in late fall and winter bring new challenges – and opportunities – for parents of children with special needs. Winter poses issues for all parents, but the change in daily rhythms and routines can be especially difficult for families that include kids with special needs.

With a little bit of planning and creativity, you can not only cope with the stresses of winter, but you can actually turn a trying time into a positive experience for you and your child with special needs.

Here are 10 tips for making the most of wintertime:

1. Create a schedule.

Many adults feel stressed by the changes to their routine during winter – particularly during the holidays. For kids with special needs, the disruption can feel especially threatening. To keep everyone on the same page, create a schedule that sets out the plan for each day. Highlight “big events” like trips, visits and the beginning and end of winter break. Be sure to use lots of visual elements and post the schedule where everyone can see it.

2. Break the routine.

In many families, winter has two personalities – the exciting period around the holidays and then the rest of the season, which can really drag. When the winter doldrums strike for your child with special needs, be prepared with a stockpile of special activities. Build a “fort” from blankets inside. Have an impromptu family movie night or game day. Go to a museum or the library. Cut up some swimming pool noodles and make a “ball pit” in the bathtub. With a little creativity, the possibilities are endless.

3. Ease into – and out of – winter break.

For families who have adjusted to the “normal” schedule of school and work in the fall, winter break can appear as a major speed bump. To help your child with special needs feel less disoriented by the change, create a little structure for the break. Prepare for the break by discussing what is going to happen, and use visuals to help your child understand. Count down the days until break begins, and then count down the days until it ends. Gradually adjust bedtimes and other changes to the daily routine during break time. As the end of break approaches, slowly reset to “normal time.”

4. Try on coats, gloves, hats and other winter gear.

Let’s face it – winter clothes are a must when it’s cold, but they are often uncomfortable or at least different. Heavy coats, gloves, scarves, hats and other winter weather wear are particularly bothersome for many kids with special needs. To reduce any discomfort and conflict when the first blast of cold weather comes, have your child try on the clothes before they’re needed. Consider making it a fun event by playing “dress-up” or hosting a winter fashion show. Use this time to address any issues with the winter clothes, like itchy tags or uncomfortable fasteners.

5. Go outside and play.

Snowfall and crisp winter air can set the stage for exciting playtime. In addition to making sure your child with special needs has the proper cold weather clothes – and is comfortable wearing them – you may also want to prepare your child for the sensory experience of winter weather. For example, if this is your child’s first encounter with snow, consider bringing a tub of snow into the house for your child to touch and play with first. This could help your child become familiar with the frozen stuff before venturing out into the winter wonderland.

6. Get ready for guests – or being a guest.

Winter holidays often mean lots of visits and visitors. A busy social calendar can tax even the most outgoing adults. It can be particularly stressful for a child with special needs. With a little planning, holiday visits can be a pleasant experience for you and your child. Consider helping your child prepare for an event by engaging in some roleplaying beforehand. For example, you and your spouse could play the role of grandma and grandpa to prepare for their visit. You may want to prepare a travel bag packed with some familiar items that could make a strange place seem less threatening for your child. If your child can get overwhelmed by large (and loud) groups of people, provide a quiet space where your child can retreat.

7. Schedule some alone time.

Amid all the commotion of the winter holidays, it’s important to reserve some “downtime” for your child. Make time for your child to engage in the independent activities he or she enjoys, such as reading, crafts, drawing, listening to music, watching favorite shows or just taking a nap. You might find that you can recharge your own batteries by taking advantage of some “me time” as well.

8. Fight wintertime boredom.

For many families, January marks an abrupt change from the excitement of the holidays to a seeming endless period of darkness and boredom. Be prepared to fight off the wintertime blues by saving some special events for the new year. Plan a special outing for after the holidays. Set aside a new game or toy for a slow day. Make plans to give everyone something to look forward to.

9. Eat right.

Between the bounty of holiday treats and the body’s natural craving for comfort food when it’s cold outside, wintertime can pose a real challenge for healthy eating. Make sure your child is getting the needed nutrition in addition to indulging in winter treats. If you’re traveling, pack healthy snacks that you know your child will enjoy. Plan meals in advance during winter break so you aren’t left scrambling to find something to eat.

10. Embrace the season with winter activities.

Who says summer is the only time you can be active? Winter is also the perfect time for you and your special needs child to get exercise while enjoying seasonal activities. Have fun introducing your child to some of your favorite winter activities, or try new things together. Many ski resorts and ice skating rinks are attuned to what kids with special needs require to learn the sports. Check out local sled-hockey if your child is interested, or try out other indoor sports like basketball and swimming.


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