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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"