Supporting your neurodivergent child during the holiday season
The holiday season is upon us! With Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and more holidays right around the corner, here are a few tips for supporting and advocating for your neurodivergent child as they interact with family and friends.
Oftentimes there is a network of people surrounding your child on a day-to-day basis who understand their profile and needs. Their teachers, parents, caregivers, or related service providers are all people who likely have a strong understanding and love for your child as they are. But, the same might not be true for extended family and friends who attend family gatherings.
Hopefully after reading this blog, you can feel a little bit more prepared going into the holiday season and have more confidence regarding how to talk to family/friends about your neurodivergent toddler’s communication and play.
Talking about communication
Let’s say that your child is a gestalt language processor and uses delayed echolalia to communicate. To unfamiliar people, their language may be confusing, but we know that the words and phrases they use are meaningful to them and likely serve a communicative function. How can we describe this to others so that they can understand and engage with your child?
Share that your child learns language in a completely normal and different way than many people are familiar with – rather than learning single words and then joining them into phrases, they learn language in chunks and then break them down / mix and match them as they work toward spontaneous language. Describe how your child uses gestalts or delayed echolalia that stick with them from a meaningful experience.
Encourage family/friends to listen carefully and to show interest in what your child is saying, even if they’re not completely sure what your child is trying to communicate. Rather than dismissing the gestalts your child uses, encourage them to use context clues or words within the gestalts to respond, follow up with comments, or repeat back what they’ve said to confirm that they understand and show interest in what they are communicating. A simple head nod or smile provides validation to a gestalt language processor that their play- partner understands or is trying to understand them.
Encourage commenting and narration, without expectation that the child responds, during play and conversation since your child may not be at a stage in their language development in which they are able to answer questions (that's Stage 4 for GLPs!). Encourage family/friends to give adequate response time or silence as your child processes and adds to the interaction.
Talking about play
All play is meaningful, important, and okay! When others are playing with a child it may be helpful to:
Encourage child-led play. While a family member or friend may not know how your child likes to play, it is easy enough to observe what your child is doing and to join in / add to the play routine after determining what your child is interested in or what their plan is.
Share some of your child’s interests with family and friends. If your child prefers to line their puzzle pieces up or organize them based on color, demonstrate the way you join in with your child, encourage your family/friends to follow the child’s lead, imitate your child’s actions, or narrate what they see happening while your child plays.
What if my friend/family member has a “neurotypical” child who wants to play with my child, but my child isn’t interested? It is okay to advocate for your child and let others know of your child’s preferences, whether that is to play alone or to play in a different way than expected. Show others the way you interact/play with your child, and if they are interested, they can follow your lead and also try to play with your child. Some helpful language to use might be to say, “That toy is really special to them and they’re not ready to share it right now.”
Share your child’s sensory seeking/avoiding preferences and how they self-regulate. If your child seeks heavy work or deep pressure and takes a break by crashing into the couch cushions, you can share with your family/friends that your child seeks these feelings because it is soothing or because they like the way it feels. You can demonstrate the way you add language/playfulness into these activities and encourage them to do the same.
It is important to remember that as a parent you may want to be an advocate for your child, but you do not have to take on the responsibility of making everyone else feel comfortable or educating everyone on the ins and outs of your child’s communication, play, preferences, etc. Consider that you can share as much or as little as you want with your family and friends. You know your child and the way that they learn…the holidays won’t last forever, and you won’t always be surrounded by people who feel like they don’t understand your child. If you do prefer to share with others, hopefully,
these tips and the language presented will equip you to do so with your family/friends over the holiday season.