I wrote this article last year for Desiring God. I’m reposting it here (permitted per DG’s reprint policy), as once again we’re struggling with the same challenges. Maybe it will bring comfort and a sense of understanding to others. You are not alone. And your sensitive little ones are loved and cherished in Christ, no matter how difficult things seem.
The festive trappings of Christmas seem tailor-made for a child’s sense of awe. The tinsel and holly, aromas of cinnamon and cocoa, and avenues aglow with twinkling lights offer kids a glimpse of God’s artistry. With proper guidance, such holiday splendor can point kids toward the source of all wonder: a baby in a manger, our God come to earth for us (Luke 2:9–12).
But not all kids glean joy from the bustle and vibrancy of this season.
This Thanksgiving, while our guests laughed unaware in our dining room, my son writhed on an armchair with his eyes glazed over. I wanted to gather him into my arms, but even my gentle touch would have flooded his already taxed nervous system. So I knelt before him, told him I loved him, and begged him to breathe. As he inched back from a meltdown and awareness again glimmered in his eyes, his gaze met mine. “The talking is too loud, Mum,” he said through tears.
Anything but Bright
For children with special needs, the holidays often herald more distress than delight. Kids struggling with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and other neurodevelopmental conditions rely upon predictability to feel safe. Any deviation from the routine, no matter how exhilarating, pitches these children into a whirlwind of anxiety.
Additionally, many suffer from sensory processing disorder, a wiring of the brain that misinterprets everyday sights, sounds, textures, and smells as noxious or even threatening. While most kids relish the jubilant clamor of Advent, for those with neurodevelopmental differences, the crowds, the noise, and the disrupted routines are a recipe for discomfort at best, and sheer panic at worst.
And yet special-needs kids and their families ache for the message of Advent as desperately as other believers. Parents may yearn to savor the days of reflection and sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” nightly, but instead find themselves holding on for January with clenched teeth and whitened knuckles. For special-needs families, the message of Jesus’s birth, worthy of the exultation of angels (Luke 2:14), can disappear in the stress of just living.
How do we walk with these kids and their families this season? How do we help them grasp the hope of Advent despite their daily challenges?
Beware Your Assumptions
The apostle Paul urges us to be patient, bearing with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2). With special-needs kids, this teaching guides us toward understanding, and away from criticism.
To the uninformed observer, the signs of a neurodevelopmental disorder can mimic defiance or spoiledness. It’s easy to roll our eyes, to admonish parents, or to scold children when behavior unsettles us. But the most awkward or recalcitrant actions in special-needs kids usually arise from differences in neurology, not from bad parenting.
As an example, don’t assume rudeness when a child with autism doesn’t respond to your cheerful “Merry Christmas!” He’s likely fighting to sort your words out from the hundred different stimuli vying for his attention — and it’s hard for him.
Also, don’t presume lackadaisical parenting when a boy wears sweatpants to church every week. His clothing might feel like sandpaper abrading his skin, and his family has prioritized getting him to church to hear God’s word over concerns about ridicule. A kindergartner might bolt from a crowded sanctuary not because she’s unruly, but because she’s terrified. Another child might abandon a heaping plate of food after two bites not because she’s ungrateful, but because the texture of unfamiliar food feels wrong, like mouthing something decayed.
Families contending with special-needs challenges need compassion, not reproach. The first step in supporting these families during Advent is to realize that instances of apparent misbehavior often belie a deeper struggle. We must be quick to listen and slow to judge, lest our criticism demoralize brothers and sisters who daily life has already crippled.
Partner with Weary Parents
Special needs can isolate families. When a child’s sensitivities preclude even a routine trip to the grocery store, the usual avenues of fellowship — birthday parties, baby showers, church-wide dinners — become unfeasible. But love and fellowship from other believers, offered without judgment, can provide parents a cool cup of water as they labor through arid terrain.
Recognize that for these families, the holidays may not represent the cheer you’d expect. Although they may smile as warmly as usual, inwardly parents may be striving to maintain composure. Their limited ability to help with the Christmas pageant, or in the soup kitchen, may strike them with guilt. They may feel out of step with the season, with the world celebrating around them as they trudge, broken and depleted, from one hard moment to the next.
Reach out to exhausted parents during Advent, and ask how they’re managing. Give them space to admit the difficulties, and to share how the children they so love are unique, amazing, and struggling in ways you can’t see. Throughout, listen and empathize, but resist the urge to give unsolicited advice. Special-needs parents are regularly inundated with well-intended, but naïve counsel that often hurts more than helps. The greatest gifts we can offer are concern, presence, and a willingness to listen. Such simple charities reflect God’s grace to those desperate to discern it, and build up the weary among us (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Galatians 6:2).
Remind Them They Belong
Kids with special needs often know they are different. They long to join their peers, but can’t tolerate the overstimulation of typical childhood activities. As they watch from the sidelines, these kids can suffer from loneliness and low self-esteem.
One precious way to support neuroatypical children is to remind them that in all their differences, they are beloved, unique, and wonderfully made (Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:13–16). They may not be able to participate in rowdy parties and group gatherings, but they can flourish with individual attention and affection. Treat them as the cherished image-bearers God created them to be (Genesis 1:26). Sit beside them, and discover what inspires them. Learn what makes them laugh. Let your face, words, and actions reflect God’s love for them, such that they come to know, deep in their hearts, that Jesus came for them. Help them grasp their identity as God’s treasures, created for his glory (Psalm 127:3; Luke 18:16).
Our call to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), and to live united as the body of Christ, guides us to extend love to those struggling in the background, for whom the revelry rings too harshly, and shines too blisteringly bright (John 12:34–35; Ephesians 4:14–16). This Advent, remember special-needs kids and their families. Bear with them patiently. Help them reclaim the wonder of this season, the joy, the hope in the one who has come, and will come again, and who knows the arrows that assail them. Remind them of his love and his promise to make all things new — even when the loneliness and daily strain engulf them.