Hosting an accessible Christmas for children with disability

If you are catering for a child with disability you might have to adapt slightly to suit them this Christmas.

Christmas can be a difficult time for children with disability as routines change, noisy gatherings take place, and they have to move out of their comfort zone. It can be a very overwhelming time of the year.

Key points

  • Asking how you can accommodate any disabilities ahead of time is a quick and easy way to deliver an accessible Christmas
  • Do not force a child with disability to eat any food they do not want to and respect their boundaries
  • Providing a quiet space with minimal sensory stimulation is a great way to hold an inclusive Christmas

If you are hosting a Christmas event and know there will be a child with disability attending, you might also be wondering how to accommodate them, as you want to provide them with a fun, memorable experience!

But what if they have a sensory disability which means they do not eat certain foods or they use a wheelchair? Are you set up to support their needs?

Do not worry, continue reading to learn more about how you can host an accessible Christmas for children with disability.

Understand their needs

Christmas is a holiday full of tradition, whether it is the annual drive to look at festive lights, Nan’s Christmas pudding or the forced laughter as Dad retells the same old Christmas cracker jokes.

However, sometimes traditions do have to change, and if you are catering for a child with disability you might have to adapt slightly to suit them. Perhaps this means turning off the flashing lights if they have epilepsy or providing a different Christmas spread.

The best way to adapt is by being upfront and talking to the child and their parents to understand their needs. This is especially important if they have never visited your house or if you are hosting Christmas at a new location.

There are a few simple questions you can ask to understand how to make Christmas accessible, such as:

  • Are there any sensory triggers that should be avoided?
  • Do they use any mobility aids or a wheelchair, and if so, how large is it?
  • Do you need any ramps to help them get in and out of the house?
  • What food can they eat and how could we make the meal suitable?
  • Will you need a reserved spot to park so you don’t have to walk far?
  • Would you prefer to arrive at a certain time to suit any routines or care requirements?

If you can plan ahead and cater to any accessibility or sensory requirements, then you can also avoid any last-minute adjustments on the day. This can help avoid any situations that may be awkward or embarrassing, especially for a child who does not know everyone, and ensure they arrive with minimum fuss, which will enhance their overall experience.

Maintain the usual routines

There is no doubt that Christmas is incredibly busy as you rush around from event to event. This can be quite stressful to some children with disability, as it can be for many adults. 

A good routine is the equivalent of a safe space, so try to stick to any normal routines like mealtimes, downtime or even their bedtime if possible. You can learn more about regular routines in our article, ‘Tips for setting up family routines‘.

When that is not possible, prepare your child with an outline of the day and clear explanations of where you will be going, who you will be seeing, etc. The fewer surprises, the better, as it means they are ready for anything and can bring along any sensory supports or aids.

Meanwhile, if you are the host, see if you can adapt your schedule to suit any set routines. This could include accommodating any special medication or meal requirements, allowing them to arrive early to get settled in, or understanding that they might have to leave abruptly or early.

Provide a variety of food options

For many children with disability there are foods they just cannot and will not eat due to sensory food aversion. Certain textures are a no-go zone as they cause a sensory overload and it is crucial you do not force any foods on them.

As an example, perhaps your traditional meal is a roast turkey with vegetables, cranberry sauce and gravy. While your family may be strict on children eating all of their broccoli or green beans, that is not something that can be forced on a child with autism as they may be adverse to consuming soft textured food.

Before Christmas, ask what foods they can eat and cater to them. You can also ask the parents to bring a plate of food they know their child with disability will enjoy. Sure, it might mean one person out of ten is eating a different meal, but if the children with disability is happy and comfortable – then it adds to a good Christmas day.

You can also stick to the same principle for a child that has swallowing difficulties or uses a feeding tube. Talk to their parents about the appropriate accommodations and determine if you can cater for them, or if they should bring any food or equipment to help.

If you would like to learn more about catering to sensory food aversions, you can read our article, ‘Being mindful of food sensitivities this festive season’.

Create a safe space

For people with a sensory disability such as autism, excess noise, flashing lights, strong smells or even new textures can be overstimulating. It can easily lead to restlessness, discomfort, anxiety or over-excitement.

Creating a safe space in your home means there is a spot away from loud music and bright lights. Any child with disability or impairment can go there for a moment’s rest.

You might have come across similar spaces in public, known as quiet rooms, but in the home, this could temporarily be a bedroom, study or second living space.

All you need is a room that can be dimly lit, is quiet, and contains some toys or gaming consoles to entertain the kids. If you do not have anything suitable to entertain them, just ask their parents to bring along any accessories, like noise-reducing headphones, or toys their child enjoys playing with.

If you happen to have a large number of adults and kids to cater for, consider creating multiple spaces to give them a choice about where they want to go to enjoy Christmas.

This variety means all disabilities are catered for, such as young kids who are deaf or hearing impaired and just need a slightly quieter space to effectively communicate in.

Be inclusive and open

Perhaps the most important part of hosting an accessible Christmas is making sure it is an inclusive one. Christmas is no less exciting for a child with disability than it is for others. 

Be accommodating and understanding when they don’t want to do certain things, like they might not want to give the grandparents a hug, or they may not be able to verbally respond, but that does not mean they do not want to be involved.

Instead, set up some games they could participate in! Instead of backyard cricket, it could be Finska or cornhole – games that are suited to a child’s abilities. Set up some board games where they have to play in a team or ask them to bring games they can play with the other kids. 

The last thing you want is for a child to be sitting alone on Christmas; they are present and aware and you should include them at every opportunity. But if you are unsure about how to do that, just ask. 

If they are old enough they will love that you spent time making Christmas accessible, while parents will certainly appreciate it if you go above and beyond to provide a memorable Christmas.

What changes are you making to your Christmas day so it’s accessible for a child with disability? Share your story in the comments below and subscribe to the Talking Disability newsletter for more engaging content.

Related content:

Being mindful of food sensitivities this festive season
Inclusion during the Christmas holidays
Summer holiday activities for kids with disability