For Your Special Needs Child: Making the Holiday Break Special, Healthy, & Fun! by Teri Arranga

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For Your Special Needs Child: Making the Holiday Break Special, Healthy, & Fun! The most important thing about engaging in holiday activities with a child with special needs or engaging the attention of a child with special needs is this: the child must be feeling well and be “present.” A child who is not feeling well or who is “zoned out” or who is exhibiting maladaptive or combative behaviors will not have the same positive experience as a child who is alert and fit, and the experience won’t be as happy for caregivers or family members. Sometimes these behaviors are the result of illness, pain, imbalanced gut flora and their sequelae, inflammation, reactions to allergenic foodstuffs, incomplete digestion, or lack of energy. Many children with special needs have metabolic, gastrointestinal, and immune situations that have been visibly helped by a special diet and enhanced nutrition. For example, casein and gluten are problematic food components for so many children. These proteins go through the gut wall, adversely affect the immune system, and further adversely affect the nervous system/brain. Additionally, foods that cause Candida to proliferate in the body can cause deleterious effects. These dietary factors and consequent conditions act on the body and behavior in a drug-like manner, so this may be a reason for seeing “zoned out” behavior or other behavior that is challenging or hard to explain. Fortunately, there are food substitutes and nutritional supplements that can be used, such as the Kirkman® Calcium with Vitamin D-3 Powder hypoallergenic formulation, which is part of the Ultra Tested® line that is screened for 950+ contaminants. In addition to helping supply the calcium that would have otherwise been ingested from potentially allergenic cow’s milk, nutritional supplementation -- such as with vitamin D-3 -- supports the overall health of the body during holiday cold and flu season. (Hint: Kirkman® unflavored or flavored calcium powder can be sprinkled on top of your child’s favorite holiday dessert or almond flour breakfast pancakes!) Under appropriate medical supervision, considering special nutrition for special kids with healthful foods and high-quality supplementation is a foundational prerequisite to getting anything else fun done! So, now that we’ve briefly addressed diet and nutrition, let’s have some fun! Our theme to brighten up a winter’s day is “Making Rainbows.” My own personal work has centered on individuals with an autism diagnosis. For art activities that have an educational objective, I often like to incorporate materials with interesting textures. Let’s look at some of the rationale for doing this. Multiple studies by Dr. Sally Rogers have found imitation skills impaired in children with autism.1,2 A 2010 paper by Dr. Michael Murray found attention problems in a subset of individuals with autism spectrum disorder, and noted that “Children with ASD and ADHD symptoms are also prone to motor problems, which lead to especially poor outcomes.”3 Sometimes, seemingly simple, age-appropriate tasks that we did as youngsters are not
“automatic” for children with autism, and an occupational therapist is brought in to help with skills such as cutting and coloring within the lines. According to Jessica Wright, writing for (Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative), “Many people with autism also have problems with fine motor skills, such as manipulating objects, and gross movements, such as walking or sitting.”4 So, practicing at home, maintaining consistency and retention during vacation, and reinforcing the skill over time are important. It is not my opinion that typical paper and crayon activities work well for a child significantly impacted by autism. In the same way that a student with special needs must feel well to optimally engage, the lesson must be more interestingly configured in order for the student with autism to optimally engage. My use of textures and objects with a more exciting appearance strives to hold the attention of my learner. For example, I have done lessons about shapes or colors with peg boards of different colors and shapes. Feel the peg board – it feels interesting, right? You can do the same with feathers, cotton puffs, and pieces of felt. Feel the feather. All of these items can be found at an arts and crafts store, and many can be economically purchased at a dollar store. According to the Monarch Center for Autism’s website page about art therapy: “There is a commonly held belief that art making is beneficial to people (particularly children) with Autism Spectrum Disorder due to their intense sensory needs (especially visual and tactile self-stimulation) and disregulation, often nonverbal nature, and need for more visual, concrete, hands-on therapies.”5 I would agree. There are some very successful artists in the autism community, such as Trent Altman, who was the 2012 United Nations award-winning artist of the Autism Awareness Stamp for Trent’s painting Abstract Garden II. Although significantly impacted by autism, Trent is able to enjoy a fulfilling and successful career through art making.
To make rainbows, obtain some or all of the following items:           White paper plate Colored construction paper Safety scissors Regular tape Double-stick tape (optional) Nontoxic glue (optional) White cotton balls Multi-colored pipe cleaners – some packages contain more than one texture Multi-colored modeling clay Small, textured seashells (as safe for developmental age)
          
Small, smooth stones (as safe for developmental age) Tiny tree figures Multi-colored play dough Child’s rolling pin (optional) Bird stickers (optional) Multi-colored nontoxic markers Multi-colored crayons Watercolor paints, paintbrush, water, and a cup Multi-colored cotton puffs Multi-colored feathers Fresh fruits and/or vegetables of different colors
Here are skills and concepts you can teach or foster while making rainbows:                      Representational art Fine motor skills Strengthening muscles in the hands Rolling (with hands or a rolling pin) Forming and constructive play Cutting Drawing Coloring/coloring inside the lines Painting Adhering (taping or gluing) Identifying textures Naming colors Color sequencing Sequence of directions Concentration Imagination Following instructions or imitating Modeling simple language Encouraging child to verbalize simple requests (“Give me,” “I want,” “Help,” etc .) Interacting Using praise as a reinforcer/reward
Although not shown here, in addition to the four projects pictured above, you can also make rainbows using crayons, markers, watercolors, cotton puffs, and feathers. That will take you to nine projects – at least one for every day of a vacation week! Celebrating each completed project with your child and showing them that you are proudly displaying their artwork will add decorations to your holiday home. (And if the project itself won’t hang on the refrigerator door, you can take a picture of your child’s creation and hang up the printout!) Finally, don’t forget to teach about the most important rainbow for the winter holiday season – the FOOD RAINBOW. The food rainbow includes different pretty colors that include different yummy ingredients that will keep you healthy as you play all day!
It is important to note that if there is something your child would much rather be playing with, then you can use this as a teaching opportunity. For example, your child might favor animal figures. You can teach sizes (e.g., large and small), patterns (e.g., stripes vs. spots), same vs. different, or animal families. You can color plastic or plaster animal figures with markers or paints. You can teach part-whole relationships with feathered bird figures and individual feathers. You can encourage your child to request different colors of play dough and make winter coats to wrap the animals in. You can foster imagination by “bathing” animals in a multi-colored cotton puff bubble bath. You can have the animals joyfully dance together and maybe even sing softly to each other with animal sounds while a children’s music video is playing. And so on.
Happy, healthful holidays – have fun!
References 1. Imitation performance in toddlers... [J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2003] - PubMed NCBI. (n.d.). Retrieved from 2. Deferred and immediate imitation in regressive and early onset autism. (n.d.). Retrieved from 3. Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder... [Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2010] - PubMed NCBI. (n.d.). Retrieved from 4. Wright, J. (2013, September 13). Cognition and behavior: Motor skills affect speech in autism. Retrieved December 15, 2013, from 5. Art Therapy - Therapy - Monarch Center for Autism. (2009). Retrieved December 15, 2013, from