The CVI parent’s guide to the holidays

How to approach holidays and gift-giving for your child with CVI

Boy with CVI playing with legos with a black trifold blocking out the visual clutter from the room

Here we are at that time of the year where we ask: “What gift should I get for my child with CVI?” This can be a heavy question for many CVI families. We all have emotional connections to particular holidays or birthdays and have an idea of how they should look. Our preconceived notions need to be adjusted when raising a child with CVI, with a different normal.

CVI parents know this. We are used to changing how we go about life’s daily tasks, and adjusting how we do the holidays is no different. So how do we make holidays more CVI-friendly? How do we reinvent holidays to celebrate our kids with CVI and all their gloriousness? 

Let’s begin with why holidays can be challenging for children with CVI. 

Difficulty with visual recognition means that our kids with CVI may be hesitant to try something new or resist the idea of playing with anything that is not familiar. This is hard, especially when curiosity and exploration of novel places and items are the foundation of development. When other children burst with excitement as they complete their wish list of gifts and party themes, it’s easy to get discouraged about what the holiday experience will be like for your child with CVI.

“Novelty of gifts and complexity of array are hard, as are the fine motor skills of opening gifts. We’ll keep gifts unwrapped and give one at a time gradually, leading up to Christmas.” -CVI Parent

Visual curiosity is all about incidental learning, distance viewing, and access to the full environment. Kids with CVI may miss all of the visual cues that we strongly associate with holidays. All the decorations on people’s houses, in stores, or at school get us thinking about a holiday experience and what we look forward to. Even the smells trigger strong emotional memories. These sensory-based anticipatory cues need to be directly described and taught to our kids with CVI. 

Visual clutter is a big one with holidays. If there are new items that your child doesn’t have a visual memory for, then it all adds to the clutter or complexity of the environment and array. Think about a stack of gifts, a table full of holiday foods, or a room with new decorations. 

Difficulty with sensory integration can make a child with CVI adversely react to friends and family gathering or even a sibling screaming with excitement while opening gifts. Holiday celebrations can be very chaotic for kids with CVI, even if just celebrating with immediate family. The new routine and tasks can raise the level of anxiety.

“We've skipped extended family gatherings for years. The travel and overwhelming nature of large groups of people make it really hard for my child with CVI. This year, we're embracing dinner at home, which likely includes my child’s favorite meal.” -CVI Parent

Fortunately, some fun aspects of the holidays tap into the relative strengths of some children with CVI.

  • Light decorations both inside and outside. One parent shared that her son loved lying underneath the Christmas tree and looking up at the lights.
  • Large, colorful decorations around the neighborhood can offer a new visual anchor while out and about.
  • Stores, specifically dollar stores, are stocked with materials with highly saturated color and shiny properties. 

Three brothers sitting in front of holiday lights at night. One of the brothers has CVI.

Ways to approach gift-giving for your child with CVI

It’s essential to take a whole-child approach. You know what your child loves, what gets them excited or calm, and their triggers. From there, think about your child’s CVI visual behaviors and characteristics, which can act as barriers to fully accessing a holiday, birthday, or celebration experience. 

8 questions to ask when deciding on the right gift for your child

  1. Currently, what are your child’s favorite objects, toys, books, and other types of items? What do they engage with all the time?
  2. Are their items that are similar to your child’s favorites? 
    • For example, your child loves to play with various musical instruments. You may want to find a shaker in a new color, a different size drum, or try a new instrument in your child's favorite color. 
  3. Is there something that your child loves to watch or explore out in the community? 
    • One parent noted that her son loves to watch the garbage truck, so she’ll get a toy garbage truck that looks similar to the one her child knows. 
  4. Does your child love items that play music, light up, or have some component of movement?
  5. What type of textures does your child love to explore?  
    • Simple gifts can be the best. Perhaps a knobby ball, a soft blanket, a new cozy sweatshirt, velcro blocks, squishy stress toys, fidget toys, something to chew on, and so on. 
  6. What does your child like to do, or where are their favorite places to go? 
    • An experience gift can be fun; perhaps take your child to their favorite place. 
  7. Are there specific learning materials or tools that your child needs? 
    • Often families and friends ask about gifts for your child, and learning materials can be a great option. Perhaps a gift card to the app store or craft materials to make adapted books or tangible symbols. 
  8. What does your child love to eat? 
    • Food can be a big motivator and an easy-to-recognize gift. Perhaps make your child their favorite cookies or muffins and present them in an easy to open gift box. Maybe it’s a bin of their favorite candy or savory snacks. Don’t discount the power and ease of gifting food. 
    • One parent shared that her son loves to go to Dunkin Donuts and he's even able to visually recognize the Dunkin' logo. She'll get him a box of munchkins as a gift!
    • Another parent shared that she told her family to get ice cream sandwiches, her daughter’s favorite, for her birthday. It was a hit! Her daughter ate ice cream sandwiches for a whole week and thought about her uncles and grandparents every time she took a bite. 

Girl with CVI sitting in box playing with red lady bug lights

Think about how to present a new gift to your child with CVI 

Building excitement around something new takes work for a child with CVI. Opening a wrapped present may be difficult or not ideal for your child to experience their gift for the first time. Here are some ideas for how to show your child their new item.

  • Place the gift in a simple gift bag.
  • Present the new item in a favorite spot in the house, for example, on a black mat at the table while sitting in front of a blank wall. 
  • Slowly move the item in their preferred field, wait for visual attention, and then bring it toward the midline.
  • Allow your child to explore the item with all of their senses: touch, hear, look, bring to mouth, smell. 
  • If the gift is similar to a favorite object, have your child play with this familiar item and then present the new item. Describe the visual and tactile features of both items, how they are the same and different. 
  • Use a black trifold and place a few gifts in front of it. The black trifold can hide the clutter of the other gifts or decorations.
  • Ask your child where they want to open their gifts, whether or not they want their gifts wrapped, and how many gifts they can handle at once. 

Stuffed animal, gift bag, and small blue guitar placed in front of a black trifold hiding the pile of presents under the Christmas tree.

Have a joyous and safe holiday season and new year!

CVI parents, how have you made the holidays accessible for your child? Or what other questions do you have about gift-giving or celebrations? Join the CVI Now Parents Group to be a part of the conversation.