Special Needs Grandchildren: How to Navigate Big Family Gatherings

If you have any special needs grandchildren, then you also understand the special circumstances that go along with them.

Down syndrome boy with grandparents - Special needs grandchildren and big family gatherings - Adventures in NanaLand
Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

A few years ago, I spent weeks picking out a special menu with its perfect blend of sweet and savory dishes. Then I carefully created the most picturesque holiday table complete with name cards and folded napkins. Now that the day was here and there were people in every nook and cranny of my home along with a noise level that was about 10x more than normal, the piercing scream of my grandson shot through the air like a hot spear. As if things weren’t chaotic enough with all those people, now one of my Littles was melting down over where he wanted to sit just as I was about to put the Thanksgiving turkey on the table.

With lots of eyes rolling and a parent at her wit’s end, the crowd grew quiet as the battle of wills continued between my grandson and his mother. Screaming that he didn’t want to sit at the designated spot where his name card was placed, he swiped his arm across the place setting sending everything crashing to the floor. My grandson ran from the room wailing, his mother, quite embarrassed was trying to pick up bits and pieces from the floor all the while apologizing for the mess. Everyone just stood quietly staring and not knowing exactly what to do.

This may be a familiar scene if you have any special needs grandchildren. Since there are many families that deal with tantrums, meltdowns, and other such disruptions from these special little ones during family get-togethers, I thought it might be good if we got some advice from an expert.

Boy with hands over his face - Special needs grandchildren - Adventures in NanaLand

I brought in my friend, Tiff Weilbacher, from Spectrum Sense for Moms to help us. Tiff is the mom of not one, but two beautiful boys who fall on the autism spectrum. She runs a website, SpectrumSenseforMoms.com, dedicated to helping moms with autistic children find answers and cope with the inevitable transitions ahead. Spectrum Sense for Moms provides answers and resources to help smooth out the bumpy road of these special needs children.

I asked Tiff some questions about handling special needs children during big family gatherings and asked her for some general advice about how to cope with the many moving parts. Keep in mind that her specialty is with autism, and a lot of her advice leans towards autistic children, she gave me some very practical advice that could work well for almost any of our special needs grandchildren.

(In this interview, you will see my comments about other special needs grandchildren in color intermixed or below Tiff’s answers. I’ve always got to put in my two cents, you know.)

Here is my interview with Tiff. . .


What are some of the challenges for children with autism or special needs in a big family setting?


It is obviously challenging for the autistic child because there are more (and often new) sounds, smells, sights, and people. All of this can be overwhelming, even in a small family event. Sensory-sensitive kids can become quickly upset by sensory overload from different foods, air fresheners, family pets, perfumes, music, loud talking, crowded spaces, new table décor, etc.

(This can be true of any child with special needs of any type. Sometimes change = frustration or simply an inability to understand how to react to the differences.)

Boy sitting on mother's lap - Special Needs Grandchildren - Adventures in Nanaland
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash


What are some of the challenges for the parents of our autistic or special needs grandchildren?


It is challenging for the parents because they usually feel heavy judgment from family members, and it can cause hard feelings. There are certain stereotypes about autism (and other special needs), and many people who are not well educated on the topic don’t understand the underlying causes of the child’s behavior.

This lack of understanding can lead them to believe the parents are slacking on discipline and simply allowing their child to “misbehave.” Family members who are not heavily involved in the child’s life may not see the signs of autism or other special needs. Oftentimes, remarks are made to the parents, which can hurt deeply, making them feel unwelcome at future family events.


How can the grandparents support their special needs grandchildren and their parents?


Any special needs grandchildren can be challenging for the grandparents and other family members as well. It can be difficult for them to know how to respond to the behavior of their special needs grandchildren, or how to help. Grandparents may not want to overstep bounds, so they may be afraid to offer assistance. On the other hand, they may want to try too hard to help, without knowing the right methods, and make matters worse. (Been there, done that.)

Grandparents who are hosting a gathering can help by having a small room or indoor tent set up where their grandchild can go if they need a break.

(Awesome tip, Tiff!)



What’s the best way to avoid family drama in these situations?


The best way to avoid all of this family drama is for the parents to inform everyone ahead of time. Of course, there are differing opinions on this. Some parents don’t want to tell anyone that their child is autistic or has special needs, because they fear that they will be treated differently. But if they know their kiddo is going to have a meltdown or exhibit certain behaviors (such as stimming), it’s best to let the family know so they are more understanding.

(I agree! Light is better than darkness!)

If the parents don’t want to share their child’s diagnosis with their family, they can try to arrange a backup plan instead; but this only works if there is a quiet place to escape during the family event.


How does an autism or other special needs diagnosis affect a family?


There are many ways that any special needs diagnosis affects a family. Specifically, autism affects families in many different ways, depending on the specific circumstances. Some of the most common ways are schedule interferences, less socialization, financial struggles, and higher stress levels.

Parents will often back away from social activities once their child receives an autism diagnosis – that is, if they hadn’t already backed away because of their child’s struggles. Either way, there is often a change in activity level.

(We found this to be true just when our son was diagnosed with ADHD. It came with some other physical challenges that we just weren’t prepared to deal with.)

Parents may have trouble finding someone to watch their child, so they may not get date nights as often. Single parents may not get time alone at all. It all becomes a juggling act.

Usually, mothers are the ones stretched the most, and they can feel overwhelmed, and frustrated when others don’t help.

Dads may get bent out of shape because they are getting less attention, having less fun, or being pushed harder financially.

Siblings can feel pushed aside because of the level of care their brother or sister requires. They also may not get special time with their parents as they once did.

This can cause hard feelings in families, as members begin to feel slighted. There may be bitterness at times, on all sides. Families affected by autism and other special needs really need a good support system for this reason!

(As a grandparent, you are in the best position to offer assistance for your special needs grandchildren. After all, we grandparents tend to have more patience and can offer unconditional love when others can’t. I just think that we are sometimes capable of more understanding than other family members.)


Can an autism (or other special needs) diagnosis affect my grandchild’s self-esteem?


Some children on the spectrum have no idea they are even on it, and their self-esteem levels are not affected. (However, there are other special needs disorders where the children’s self-esteem is quite damaged by being “different.”) Many autistic children struggle with anxiety, which can automatically cause low self-esteem; this must be addressed as early on as possible. Others have trouble making friends, or even get picked on and bullied which obviously affects their mental health.

(This makes me put on my “NanaBear” suit! Grrr!)

If your grandchild seems sheepish, apologizes too often, hangs their head when they make a mistake, speaks negatively about themselves or others, or tries to hide their behavior, they may be struggling with low self-esteem. As a grandparent, the best way you can help is to be a positive influence.

Encourage them as often as possible (without going overboard!). Speak life into them. Point out the good qualities they have, even if you have to look hard! Be specific in your praise; for example, “It was responsible of you to clean up that mess,” instead of just “Good job.”

Another way to help improve an autistic child’s self-esteem is by helping them find something they are good at. When you do, nuture it! Offering choices also makes them feel better about themselves because they feel more in control and capable. When they are around you, offer them choices within limits. “Would you like to play this game or that one?” “Do you want the red cup or the blue cup?” Making simple choices on a consistent basis shows the child that they are more capable and helps improve their self-image.

Boy with large blue headphones on - Special needs grandchildren - Adventures in NanaLand


How does autism affect or change the way children interact socially within a family? Siblings? Cousins?


Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty relating to their peers. Social skills are one of the hardest things to learn because different social environments call for different behaviors. Many siblings are supportive when an autism diagnosis is received. Some are not, and they can be bitter. Much of this depends on the family’s dynamics. Most importantly, the parents must ensure that all of their children’s needs continue to be met, to try to avoid dissension.

As far as cousins are concerned, it is different from family to family. Depending on the child’s specific needs, it may not affect cousin relationships much. A lot of this depends on how often they see each other. It definitely requires understanding from the cousins in order to have a good relationship.

(We have had to deal with this at our Grandma Camp with all the cousins as we have a few different situations that need special understanding.)


How does autism affect the way my grandchildren play with each other?

Tiff from Spectrum Sense for Moms:

Many autistic children struggle with play. Often, their idea of play is different from typical children. It can be helpful to bring a few of their own toys to help them feel comfortable with something familiar.

Some autistic children may be completely oblivious to the other children around them, or they may be overly social and have no sense of boundaries. On the other hand, they may just be socially awkward wanting to play, but not sure how to approach other children or talk to them. Autism can take many forms, and all of these social differences make play more of a challenge for kids on the spectrum.

No matter what the differences are, you need to find common ground. That’s always helpful in encouraging play.

Where to Find Tiff and Spectrum Sense for Moms

Thank you so much, Tiff! We really appreciate your wonderful insights! If you would like to learn more from Tiff about how to deal with autism in children and grandchildren, please visit her at Spectrum Sense for Moms.

As a matter of fact, Tiff has some fabulously curated sensory activity boxes for autistic children. However, your grandchildren do NOT need to be autistic to enjoy them! If you have any special needs grandchildren, you will want to have a few of these boxes around your home. (FYI, I like playing with those things too!)

Here’s a sneak peek:

Box of sensory activities for autistic kids - Spectrum Sense for Moms

Here’s another idea for you . .they make great GIFTS for those grandchildren! I LOVE giving subscription boxes to my Littles as gifts. Go check them out now and see for yourself just how wonderful they are!

Just Do Your Best. . .

Family gatherings are always tricky. However, when you have special needs grandchildren, things can get downright ugly if not managed appropriately. My best advice is to get informed and then extend grace to any and all situations. None of us are perfect, and we could all use some patience and love as we navigate the sometimes “shark-infested waters” of extended family gatherings.

Do you have any practical advice? We would love to hear it in the comments below! This is definitely NOT a one-size-fits-all. So, any advice that you would like to share might very well help someone else.

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2 thoughts on “Special Needs Grandchildren: How to Navigate Big Family Gatherings”

  1. Sheree Phillips

    Oh my. I’m so glad I found you! I’m Granma to two precious ASD grandsons. I can’t wait to dig into your materials here! My husband and I are embarking on some Christian ministry to parents of special needs children and I’m wondering who I can contact to get permission to use the beautiful picture on your site in our materials? I love the joy it shows!

    1. Sheree, that photo is one from Deposit Photos. Just check out their site and I’m sure you’ll find lots of wonderful photos to use. God bless you in your efforts to help other parents of special needs children. They certainly are blessings to their families.

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