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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

Top Ten Dos and Don’ts for a Special Needs Family Reunion

Winter vacation is almost here, and many families are planning their get-togethers.  Some will be seeing nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles or grandchildren for the first time since the summer, or maybe since last year.

When loved ones, especially loved ones not seen every day or every week, have special needs, some people may be unsure how to interact. To help break the ice, I came up with ten dos and don’ts for those family reunions.  There’s a long backstory to every one of these, but I’ll leave that to the reader’s imagination.

10. Don’t demand a hug.
Do ask the person if it’s OK to hug.  If it’s not OK, ask if a high-5 or wrestling pinky fingers is OK.

9. Don’t consider your relative “somebody else’s problem.”  Don’t open your home unless you also plan to open your heart.
Do ask your relative and his or her caregiver ahead of time what you can do to make everyone comfortable.

8. Don’t initiate a conversation by shouting across the room.
Do initiate a conversation by sitting near the person and speaking in a gentle voice.  Do start by introducing yourself (“Hi, I’m Aunt Karen. Your dad is my big brother.”), and making simple statements or observations (“I drove 600 miles to be here with you today.”).

7. Don’t talk about the person as if she or he isn’t there.
Do include the person in your conversation and pause to wait for responses.  Do find a common interest.

6. Don’t overreact if the person’s behavior doesn’t meet your expectations.
Do remain calm and think of something positive to say when the crisis is over.

5. Don’t sneak candy or other edible treats to your relative – the person may end up in the emergency room.
Do ask the caregiver beforehand if there are any dietary concerns, if solid food is a problem and which treats are welcome.

4. Don’t expect your relative to entertain himself or herself.
Do include your relative in meal preparations and group activities, narrating everything you do and the timeline of events, and assigning each family member a special job to do.

3. Don’t take this opportunity to display your priceless collection of breakable items.
Do display family mementos and favorite toys that are meant to be handled.

2. Don’t insist on doing everything your way.  DSCF0369
become playful: get down on the floor or climb up a tree, and see things from a new point of view.  If necessary, turn your formal meal into an indoor picnic/costume ball.

1. Don’t panic.
Do smile and enjoy growing your family relationships.  You’ll feel wealthier and healthier by the end of the day.

Karen Wang

Written on December 17, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
  • Shawn Hartwell

    Great tips! I am always interesed in special needs kids as someone who’s getting into the profession of special care counselling, and this will prove invaluable.

    Does anyone have horror stories to share? How about your own tips?

  • disappointed

    We are skipping out on a much-anticipated week-long family reunion, 16 hours drive from our home, this summer. Our 3 year old son is in a wheelchair but can crawl on his belly to play. The people in charge (aunts and second cousins) did not respond to my two emails and one face to face questions about the number of steps at the location, if wheelchairs would be a problem and if there was a small location for our son to play on the floor, that wouldn’t put us completely away from the rest of the activity. I have looked forward to seeing cousins who have moved away and aunts and uncles I don’t see often but have backed out of the trip. Driving isn’t the problem; answering questions about his condition isn’t the problem, either. It is the complete lack of wanting to understand our situation that has caused us to back-out of the reunion. I’m hurt that so many people I love can’t extend to us some accessibility to this event.

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